Selling automobiles is not an activity for the faint of heart. Profit margins are thin as the fabric on a Fredricks of Hollywood negligée, clients are few and far between, and keeping the customers, manufacturers, financiers, and employees happy is more than a full-time job. As a result, just about any kind of promotion you can think up that works is a big honkin’ deal. So you’d think that when you’re a dealer that comes up with an idea that sells cars, the banks, the manufacturers, and the “creating jobs is job #1” Federal government would be thrilled. And you’d be wrong, when that idea involves guns.
Mark Muller is the owner of Max Motors, a new car dealership in Butler, Missouri. He sells American cars – Ford, Dodge, Chevy, Jeep, Buick, GMC and Cadillac. Back in July of ’09, Muller was interviewed on CNN about his Annual Great Guns and Gas Give-Away, where every new car sold came with a voucher toward the purchase of an AK-47.
I know a thing or two about automobile marketing. For longer than I care to remember, I wrote, directed, and edited TV spots for a chain of local car dealers, new and used. Lets just say that doing car promotions is to advertising and marketing what ambulance-chasing is to practicing law. Good promotions are hard to come by. Particularly ones that don’t cost more than they’re worth. Fundamentally, car dealers have somewhere between $200 and $400 per car, to spend on advertising/promotions. That includes TV time, newspaper ads, et cetera. The best promotions are ones that get people in the door, but they rarely actually redeem, i.e., a coupon. Coupons are great – they cost next-to-nothing if the customer doesn’t bother to redeem it, and the cost of redemption is built-in to the sale price of the car.
Max Motors AK-47 promotion is just about perfect – high profile, and easy to administer. That is, until CNN came a-callin.’ That’s when the fecal matter impacted upon the oscillating, rotating device for moving large volumes of air.
Within three days of the story airing on CNN, the dealership got a visit from those conscientious folks over at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms – better known as the ATF.
The ATF swooped in on the dealership while Muller was out, demanding to talk to the person in charge and to see the guns. The ATF agents refused to believe there were no guns – just vouchers. The next day, Muller was “invited” to come down to a meeting and was instructed to bring all his personal guns. Muller wisely held his ground, insisting on a little thing called “due process.”
Muller reports that the ATF folks were very polite, but would not back down, even though he explained that NO guns were being given away – only vouchers towards the purchase of a gun. When he asked the lady at the ATF, “Don’t you have something better to do?” she explained, “Let me tell you how important this is, the White House started their morning with a briefing on you. We got a call from Washington, D.C. this morning. They wanted you checked out.” So I suppose, the answer to Muller’s question was “No, they DON’T have anything better to do. Muller was also threatened with a raid on his home, to audit his personal firearms. (To date, the raid has not taken place.)
You’d think pressure from D.C. would be enough. But nooooo – Muller’s three-year relationship with the First National Bank of Kansas was terminated immediately. “Never send us more paperwork: You’re done,” they said. “What you’re doing is irresponsible – and we don’t ever want to do business with anyone like you ever again.”
His insurance was cancelled by an agent in Harrisonville, not only for Max Motors, but for unrelated businesses that Muller owns. And let’s not forget the fine folks in state government. The Missouri Department of Revenue tried to shut down Max Motors over some petty regulations. When Muller quizzed the agent as to if their attention to his business was related to the gun promo, the agent smiled and said, “WHAT promotion?”
Not enough persecution for you? How about
Government Motors General Motors? Citing the attack on a Jewish Community Center in California by right-wing extremists, GM demanded Max Motors cease and desist the promotion immediately, or lose his Chevy, Buick, GMC and Cadillac dealerships.
Muller asked to see the letter, signed by then-GM senior advisor Bob Lutz. The rep refused to hand him the letter, but finally consented to allow Muller to read it. Muller refused to back down. He lost his Cadillac dealership. Apparently, seeing that the world did not come to an end, and the strong-arm tactics didn’t work, GM is giving Cadillac back to him.
This October, Muller plans to run the promotion again. He’s running it this time through his Ford dealership, but will advertise it in the newspaper that covers his Chevy dealership. Should GM complain, he plans to point out that they have no control over his business with Ford.
So let’s recap: a dealer comes up with a popular promotion, involving vouchers for AK-47s. The ATF, State Dept. of Revenue, a bank, an insurance agency, and an automobile manufacturer ALL tried to bully Muller or punish him for having the audacity to use a gun (an AK-47, no less) to promote car sales. At a time where jobs are hard to come by and car sales even harder, you’d think offering a voucher for a legal product would be A-okay by the Nanny State. But when the “guns = bad” meme is a constant drumbeat in the media, and ideology trumps common sense, the only thing you can count on is that Max Motors is in the government’s crosshairs.