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Culture

These Jolting Ads from 1968 Catalyzed the Modern Gun Debate

After the assassination of three American icons, a group of mad men launched a no-holds-barred campaign in support of a landmark gun control bill.

The first to be gunned down was a president, John F. Kennedy, killed by a sniper’s bullet in Dallas in 1963. Five years later, the civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed on his hotel balcony in Memphis. Then, just two months later, JFK’s would-be successor, his little brother Robert F. Kennedy, was fatally shot in the kitchen of a California hotel, after a presidential campaign event.

For Americans who came of age after the 1960s, it’s impossible to fully comprehend the emotional toll exacted on the nation by the spate of political assassinations that marked that turbulent decade. But reminders of the raw emotion that filled the ensuing calls for gun reform abound in news archives from the era. Sometimes, the strong rhetoric even spilled over from editorial pages into the accompanying advertising.  

After RFK’s death, the editors at Advertising Age issued an unprecedented challenge to the industry it covers. The publication called on its readers to create ads meant to provoke popular support for a bill that would bring about significant new restrictions on gun ownership: banning felons and the mentally ill from buying firearms, and establishing a licensing system for gun sellers. The bill had languished in Congress for years. 

“In the strongest possible terms, we urge … all the panoply of national and regional associations in the media, advertising, marketing, and related fields, to get behind a massive effort to reduce the tremendous hazards of a gun-riddled society, and to get at it right now,” the editorial said.

It intoned: “Can there be any doubt anywhere that violence and contempt for law and order are doing their rotten best to tear American society apart?”

In the modern era, there is little chance that a prominent industry trade publication would take sides in such a polarizing debate. If it did, Madison Avenue likely wouldn’t respond, for fear of alienating clients. But in the 1960s, the battle lines were not so clearly formed, and the threat of retribution not so obvious. Even so, the ads created by several leading agencies of the time were stunningly blunt, deliberately designed to shock.

North Advertising, a now-defunct firm based in Chicago, was the first to accept Advertising Age’s challenge. The ad company created a series of ads with language that implored readers to take immediate action. “Write your senator … while you still have a senator,” a caption in the ad campaign demanded.

The firm offered its work to magazines and newspapers free of charge. Ladies’ Home Journal, Coronet, and Teen Screen are among the publications that published an ad.

One of the most disturbing ads in the series showed an RFK-like silhouette in a rifle’s crosshairs. “Remember when every American mother hoped her son would be president,” the text reads.

Image courtesy Advertising Age

Another North ad declared, “There is only one thing a gun is built to do.”

Image courtesy Advertising Age

Another listed the names of prominent Americans who had been shot and killed, next to spent bullet casings.

Image courtesy Advertising Age

And another warned about the danger of mail-order guns.

Image courtesy Advertising Age

As the political fight over the gun control legislation heated up in Washington, others in the advertising industry followed North in creating provocative messages, including Papert, Koenig, and Lois, the firm that RFK had hired to oversee his campaign messaging.

Image courtesy The New York Times

“O.K. National Rifle Association, now look at it from our side,” one of the firm’s ads says. The accompanying image shows the barrel of a revolver, pointed at the viewer.

Hollywood stars soon joined in, financing their own campaign in support of the stalled bill. Elizabeth Taylor, one of the biggest movie stars in the world at the time, took out a $50,000 full-page ad in the New York Times demanding gun control. It was signed by more than 100 other celebrities, including Mel Brooks and Richard Burton.

Image courtesy The New York Times

The Trace asked Jimmy Siegel, a political advertiser who has worked with Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley, and recently produced an ad in support of gun control for a Maryland Democratic congressional candidate, to review the 1960s artifacts. Siegel says most would not pass muster today.

“You couldn’t make an ad now that showed a scope on a politician’s head,” he says of the RFK-in-crosshairs advertisement. “That’s too in-your-face.”

As positions on guns have calcified, it is nearly impossible to imagine such bold messaging accompanying any gun control measure in the present-day, he says. “The current landscape is different from the nascent days of the gun debate.”  

One of the other North ads, though, would resonate without being unnecessarily incendiary, Siegel says. It features just a block of text, which rings true in an era when a spate of mass shootings has prompted a surge in firearm sales. “More and more people are buying guns to protect themselves from more and more people who are buying guns,” it reads.

Image courtesy Advertising Age

The NRA responded to the ad men with its own campaign in its membership magazine. The jockeying in the media drove hundreds of thousands of letters to senators’ offices — both supporting and opposing the proposed legislation.

It was the first major battle in a debate over the role of guns in American society that has raged ever since. In this early clash, the forces on the Advertising Age side of the divide prevailed.

On October 22, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Gun Control Act into law. 

[Photo: Courtesy Advertising Age]