Like any print publication looking to make a buck, the National Rifle Association’s American Rifleman magazine mixes some marketing messages into its email newsletter. Amid the previews of Wayne LaPierre’s latest missives, enthusiasm for Kimber revolvers, and anecdotes about defensive gun use, the magazine’s March 9 blast included a promotion seemingly tied to the lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan. Looking identical to the previews of NRA editorial content it ran alongside — save for an “advertisement” label in small white font overlaying the photo — the text raised questions about “Toxic Tap Water.”
The item spells out for its readers the lesson of the water contamination in Flint: “Relying on the government to have your interest at heart is a huge mistake.” Instead, the ad suggests buying the Alexapure, “a revolutionary tabletop water filtration system” that looks like an oversized ’70s-era coffee percolator and is sold by a company called Water4Patriots. The item links to a video for Alexapure narrated by a gravelly-voiced Southerner named Frank Bates, a company spokesman. The video highlights the need for home water purification products with a montage of past water disasters like the industrial contamination of West Virginia and Colorado rivers, algae blooms in the Great Lakes, and methane gas loosed by fracking. It also warns about water contaminated by “brain-eating amoebas.”
4Patriots’s products may be familiar to anyone who follows conservative media outlets like Newsmax and the National Review, as the company has often advertised in their email blasts as well. The spots cater to the doomsday prepper set. Past American Rifleman newsletters featured Food4Patriots, dehydrated “survival food” rations touted as the “#1 Item You Should Be Hoarding in 2016” (before FEMA corners the supply). There’s also Power4Patriots, which promotes a homebrewed solar power system, and SurvivalSeed4Patriots, for those hoping to homestead after civilization collapses.
In 2014, ThinkProgress looked into the company behind all those products after seeing ads for Food4Patriots. The article found no evidence that Bates actually exists, and tied the company to a Nashville-area man named Allen Baler. Baler appears to be engaged in what’s known as “affiliate marketing,” creating his own distinct pitch for products actually sold by a larger company known as ClickBank. In 2011, he started his venture by placing ads on the conservative website Newsmax’s email lists, which have 1.8 million subscribers.
Speaking with scientists and experts on advertising law, ThinkProgress found the 4Patriots products were survivalist snake oil. A physicist said that the claims about the Power4Patriots solar panels made no sense — the kind of cost reductions promised could only be achieved with very advanced solar systems that use semiconductors, and can’t be made by DIY preppers. Moreover, the company’s advertisements came close to violating Federal Trade Commission rules about truth in advertising, since it relied on personal testimonials from the apparently fictional Frank Bates. The National Review stopped running its 4Patriot ads just before Think Progress’s story was published.
But today, the NRA still regularly distributes the company’s ads, which dovetail closely with the gun organization’s ideology. The spots use recent events in Flint (and in Newark and other struggling, smaller cities) to push a product they claim will compensate for the federal government’s inadequacy, fecklessness, corruption, or possible malicious intent. This pitch echos NRA rhetoric on the essential value of a gun. “After Hurricane Sandy,” Wayne LaPierre wrote in the Daily Caller in February 2013, “we saw the hellish world that gun prohibitionists see as their utopia.” Writing to rally the faithful after President Obama’s second inauguration, LaPierre explained that Americans face natural and social disaster, and a gun is the best protection: “Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Riots. Terrorists. Gangs. Lone criminals. These are perils we are sure to face — not just maybe … Gun owners are not buying firearms because they anticipate a confrontation with the government. Rather, we anticipate confrontations where the government isn’t there — or simply doesn’t show up in time.” (Neither the NRA nor 4Patriots responded to requests for comment.)
On highya.com, a consumer reports website, a survivalist who had come across the 4Patriots links in American Rifleman gave the products a lousy review. He noted that the operator who handled his purchase was constantly trying to add things to his order. When he got the dehydrated food packages, he found them to be of poor quality. He said he would reserve them only “for last ditch use or bartering should there be a need.”