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How big tobacco gifted campaigns of misdirection and misinformation to the gun lobby

The tobacco industry used advertising to sell – rather than convey – its message in its lobbying tactics. AAP/Joe Castro

How big tobacco gifted campaigns of misdirection and misinformation to the gun lobby

The tobacco industry used advertising to sell – rather than convey – its message in its lobbying tactics. AAP/Joe Castro

In the late 1970s, the US tobacco industry was faced with a problem: it was no longer able to convincingly propagate the idea that cigarettes were good for you. It rightly supposed that this might lead to calls for anti-smoking legislation and, in anticipation, created an explicit doctrine: where a debate is unwinnable, change it.

The tobacco industry also recognised that if legislation led to even a 1% drop in annual revenues – self-calculated to be worth US$35 million in 1979 – then a “public information” campaign worth an unprecedented US$18 million was warranted if it might convince Congress not to legislate.

Such economics gave rise to a new wave of lobbying efforts. Corporations realised that traditional lobbying – useful as it was – was ineffective when governments proved stubborn, or even contrarian. The new lobbying no longer just targeted government, but was expanded to include the voting public.

Other industries took notice of tobacco’s efforts. These tactics still exist in lobbying today.

What the tobacco industry did

Tobacco industry groups began a series of “public information” campaigns. These took the form of paid “expert” testimony and opinion, sponsorship of “think-tanks”, the paradoxical “corporate social responsibility” (one of Milton Friedman’s greatest bugbears), and a little-understood phenomenon called “advocacy advertising”.

What made the late 1970s and 1980s different to previous decades was the shift in tone. Businesses once engaged in such campaigns in surprising ways – we would even consider them naïve today. Companies such as AT&T, Mobil Oil and General Motors ran earnest, overly long, paid op-eds in newspapers around the US that explained who they were, what was at issue (fairly accurately) and what their position was. To the general public, they were unreadable.

The tobacco industry – more than any other – changed this dramatically. It decided that it was far better to use advertising to sell, rather than convey, its message.

The tobacco industry’s campaigns were surprisingly successful. Despite a torrent of complaints about the dangers of smoking from the medical community, the public lobbying had shifted the grounds of the debate where typical, business-to-government lobbying could not.

No longer a health issue, smoking had become an individual rights one. The quickly building consensus against cigarette use was frustrated. It took a tremendous effort by anti-smoking groups to bring about gradual change, and even when the landmark Master Settlement Agreement of 1998 was signed, many critics saw the legislation as favouring the industry, and protecting it from future liability

Shifting focus on gun control

In the 1970s, the National Rifle Association (NRA) also shifted its strategic focus. Advertisements became decidedly more political.

In part, this shift was due to the increased influence of the gun industry, as distinct from individual members of the public. The industry had begun to significantly contribute to the NRA and exercised disproportionate say in who filled key leadership positions.

The rhetoric of the NRA’s ads changed. It had always been a “sportsman’s organisation”, but was once devoted more to information and training. Its tone changed in 1970, slightly at first, telling readers that hunters’ rights were under threat by:

… possibly well-intentioned, but ill-informed forces.

By the 1980s, having seen the success of campaigns that sought to distort rather than engage debates, the NRA further hardened its position. It decided that any attempt to limit gun rights was unacceptable. It has never again afforded gun-control advocates the dignity of being referred to as “well intentioned”. Post-1980 advertisements would portray such advocates as unpatriotic cowards who, if they succeeded in de-arming America, would lead to its demise.

Enter into the mix the NRA’s latest attempt to control the debate. In the wake of the Charleston church shootings, NRA magazine America’s 1st Freedom featured a story, Australia: There Will Be Blood.

The article rails against Australia’s gun laws, the most prominent of which were introduced following the 1996 Port Arthur massacre. Such articles play an important role in the wider misinformation campaign against gun control. In this case, it forms the basis for claims – often made in NRA ads – that stringent gun laws lead to a worsening of crime.

Referring to US President Barack Obama’s recent comments on Australia’s laws, the NRA magazine concludes:

[Australia’s] is the gun-control regime that our president applauds for its decisive resolve. It robbed Australians of their right to self-defence and empowered criminals, all without delivering the promised reduction in violent crime. Australia’s gun confiscation is indeed a lesson to America: it is a sign of what is to come if we hold our rights lightly.

There’s a lot to disagree with in this quote (and the article). But the article’s importance is in what it does not engage with – why Australia actually introduced the laws.

A recent NRA ad.

Muddying the waters

It is clear, in viewing the NRA’s public information strategy, that fear is a key tool. The other tool – one even more powerful – is misdirection. The lessons from big tobacco have been well heeded: alter the nature of the debate until it is winnable, or at least not loseable. In some instances stalemate will do. If new information arises that shows an existing position to be wrong, move on to another.

Similar “grassroots” organisations also use this tool for other issues like climate change. But the NRA does it particularly well, much to Obama’s obvious frustration.

The NRA refuses to substantively engage with Australia having changed its laws in response to a massacre. The laws were designed to ensure that angry, disillusioned or depressed people could not easily access a gun and kill, en masse, innocents.

The NRA lobbies in the hope that we forget that mass shootings are the work of disturbed individuals. They take place in schools and colleges, cinemas, tourist attractions, churches and workplaces. They can even take place in secure navy and army bases, illustrating the hollowness of the NRA adage that:

The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.

The victims, lest we forget them, include an unbearable number of children, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers and friends.

While there continues to be an endless bombardment of advertisements extolling how virtuous guns are, the absence of an equally well-resourced organisation in opposition to the NRA ensures that the message of victims dies at the end of a press cycle.

Who can name a single child from Sandy Hook Elementary? Who can recall their faces? Who knows what they’d say? They get lost, forgotten even, in a debate where money buys the carry of your voice.