First, a disclaimer…I am not a representative of Big Guns or the NRA. Never have been. Probably never will. I’ll never be a card-carrying member of the M.O.D. Squad (a.k.a. “Merchants Of Death” – the chief lobbyists for Tobacco, Alcohol and Firearms in D.C., as portrayed in Chris Buckley’s book Thank You for Smoking.) But apparently, I’m the resident TTAG voice for the gun industry – or at least the side of the argument that is “pro” gun.
A recent exchange between blogger and commenter on TTAG brought up the question “is the gun industry fanning the flames of anti-gun sentiment in order to sell more guns”? I speculated about the nature of the NRA in the mix in an earlier post. But if you want to take the question to the logical extreme, it becomes far more nuanced (doesn’t everything?) than the more simplistic “are the gun guys stirring up trouble to increase sales.” Here’s what I mean…Consider the age old question of which came first, the chicken or the egg. Or in marketingSpeak, “supply or demand.” Is it a Field of Dreams thing (if you build it…they will come), or is it more a case where manufacturers are catering to a pent-up demand. Or what about a third option – simply trying to drive sales by building a better mousetrap? My vote: all of the above.
Firearms are in the midst of what, I believe anyway, will be looked up in years to come as a “Second Golden Age” of innovation. Certainly the work of John Moses Browning stands alone as the first Golden Age of guns. But today’s Golden Age Redux is spread around – Glock, Springfield, Wilson Combat, ArmaLite, Taurus – you name a manufacturer, and you’ll find some kind of über-cool innovation that (they hope, anyway) puts them way out in front amongst the crowd, and get them what Ries & Trout refer to as mindshare.
Look around. Everywhere you turn, there’s amazing new products that offer genuine innovation – not the “this year we’re adding fins” kinda crap that Detroit was famous for back in the nifty 50’s. Allow me to cite three – the Taurus Judge, Crimson Trace lasergrips, and Calico weapons systems. All three product lines are wildly innovative. But to build a better mousetrap is not enough…
When you innovate, you’ve got to get the word out. (An old axiom in the sales biz is “nothing ever happens until somebody sells something”). You can make the world’s greatest dongle (funny story about that word…remind me to tell you sometime), but if nobody knows about it, nobody buys it. There are a number of ways to get the word out in marketing – namely advertising, editorial, and what we refer to as “word-of-mouth.” Ads cost money, and aren’t always as effective as you’d expect or want. Editorial – which for the purposes of this argument encompasses feature stories, blogs, and hard news – is ostensibly free, but it takes a lot of effort (we call it “public relations”) to get all that free ink. Of the three kinds of marketing, word-of-mouth is the hardest to come by, and paradoxically, the most effective. Think about this way – who ya gonna trust…some company blowing their own horn (advertising), some editor writing a glowing review (editorial), or your best buddy who just bought whatever you’re considering as a purchase (word-of-mouth).
The easiest way to get word-of-mouth is to market remarkable products that motivate influential people to remark on them. If that doesn’t work, you can always fall back on that old saw, SCANDAL! George Gobel once said “I don’t care what people say about me, as long as they’re talking about me.” If you can get people talking about your product, you can get mindshare (hopefully, the positive kind, as in “I want that product” – the Taurus Judge perhaps, versus “I wouldn’t buy one of those on a bet” – anything made by Toyota, apparently), and more importantly, sales. Keep in mind, the old saying “a rising tide lifts all boats.” A little controversy in the firearms trade can benefit all firearms manufacturers. Handgun sales go up every time somebody proposes an “assault weapons” ban, even though handguns are not generally covered in such legislation.
On the flip side, it’s all too easy to lose control of the narrative. You may start out riding the beast, but sometimes the beast has other ideas, or since it’s Aphorism Day at TTAG, “some days you eat the bear, some days the bear eats you.” A little controversy is great for business. A LOT of controversy is bad – ask any industry that suddenly faces massive Federal regulation (banking, investments, automobiles, health care, et all).
But this is a knife that cuts both ways – the anti-gun crowd benefits from some controversy (specifically benefitting re: fundraising) but if they get a little too full of themselves, they can find that a big backlash of 2nd Amendment-loving Tea Partiers come out swinging, setting back their agenda to somewhere in the vicinity of the Pleistocene Era.
I loved the book State of Fear, by the late, great Michael Crichton. In it, he used a fictionalized scenario to postulate about why the world seems to careen from one crisis to the next. His thesis was that an unofficial, unholy troika of the news media, politicians, and special-interest groups work together to keep us in a State of Fear. For instance, take “global warming.” (Please!) Crichton used extensive footnoting in the book to link to real data, reports, and studies, to show that much of what we read about in the papers is…wait for it…wildly inaccurate, and completely biased. But “the sky is NOT falling” doesn’t sell papers. “Nothing to worry about here…move along” doesn’t get research grants funded, and nobody’s gonna elect a politician (nor can he or she justify their existence) by stating “everything’s okay. Not to worry.” Nope. You’ve got to have people on the edge of panic in order to get them to open their wallets and be ready to accept all sorts of inconveniences in order to Do Something!
Unlike Global Warming, where it seems there’s no organized counter to the the Progressive’s chant of “Carbon Tax,” “Cap and Trade” and “Increase CAFE standards,” the gun debate has two well-funded, articulate sides. On the Left, we’ve got organizations like the Brady bunch and the Violence Policy Center. On the Right, the NRA and the gun manufacturers. It’s to the benefit of both sides to stir up a little controversy. Bush sunsets Clinton’s “assault weapons” ban? Brady coffers overflow! Obama wins the Presidency? OMG! Gun sales skyrocket. But if one side gets too far out in front of the other, you’ll see the pendulum do a little course correction to bring things back within scope. For instance, when OSHA proposed new regulations that would virtually ban the sale of ammunition in places like Walmart, not only was there a backlash of angry citizens calling their representatives, but you had states like Montana and Texas draft laws to limit the reach of the Federal government regarding guns manufactured and sold in-state.
So the question remains – does the industry stoke fears to drive sales? Probably. At least they don’t do a lot to quell said fears, as them’s fears is good fer bidness. But I don’t think they actively go looking for trouble, because it’s all to easy for the beast to turn on it’s masters. But to be fair, the anti-gun crowd does exactly the same thing, in reverse. They stoke the fires of fear, to push their own agenda and drive up contributions. It’s the way the game is played. And as long as we consumers realize that, we can benefit from the competition, the innovation, and the spectacle of it all. Just remember, there’s a price to be paid for all this entertainment…and we’re the ones that get stuck with the bill.
Thank you for Shooting! We’ll be here through Thursday…try the steel…targets! And please remember to tip your range masters.