Reader advisory: This article includes a graphic image.
Imagine this: You head to your local gun retailer to buy bullets for your hunting rifle, and as you pick up the ammunition box, you are confronted with the image of a bloodied young woman in a hospital bed, the survivor of a near-fatal domestic shooting. A line of text below the photo reads: “In homes where domestic violence occurs, a gun increases the risk of women being killed by 5 times.”
If a pair of advertising executives have their way, this would be the future of ammunition buying in the United States.
Oriel Davis-Lyons and Gustavo Dorietto, creative directors at the New York City-based ad agency Droga5, are developing graphic warning labels for ammunition that are similar to those that adorn cigarette packs in more than 100 countries. Studies have found that such labels, which include close-ups of tumors and people dying of lung cancer, are effective at deterring all but the most nicotine-addicted smokers from buying tobacco.
Davis-Lyons and Dorietto say they want to inform consumers of the dangers that can result from guns, something that’s not currently being done at the point-of-sale.
“Gun violence is a public health crisis, and we need to raise awareness, among both gun owners and non-gun-owners, about the devastating toll it takes on the lives of Americans,” Davis-Lyons told The Trace. Ahead of National Gun Violence Awareness Day on June 7, Davis-Lyons and Dorietto have released a one-minute ad and a website (both of which contain graphic images). They are also promoting the campaign with the hashtag #DontLookAway.
If the campaign reaches a critical mass online, the two hope to leverage its success into a broader push to convince at least one state to require the ammunition labels.
Other gun reform advocates pushed the idea of displaying gruesome images to convey the reality of gun violence. Some grieving parents who have lost children in shootings have used post-mortem images of family members at rallies and in meetings with lawmakers to underscore the harm that guns can do. And this spring, current students at Columbine High School launched #MyLastShot, which directed teens to put a sticker on the back of their driver’s licenses indicating that they want photos of their bodies made public if they die in a mass shooting.
The warning label idea came to Davis-Lyons and Dorietto after the Parkland shooting, which left them feeling “pretty despondent,” said Davis-Lyons, whose past advertising work also includes spots for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and Amnesty International. “We spend a lot of time thinking about brands and how to make them famous, but how could we do something for this issue?”
There is some historical precedent for advertising executives in the United States advocating for gun reform, albeit at a time when the battle lines on gun policy were not so clearly drawn. In the late 1960s, in the wake of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., the editors of Advertising Age called on readers to create ads meant to drum up public support for the 1968 Gun Control Act. The legislation, which had been stalled in Congress for years, banned felons and the mentally ill from buying guns and established a licensing system for firearm dealers. Several firms answered the call, creating provocative ads, including one that featured a silhouette resembling RFK in a rifle’s crosshairs.
“We warn people about the dangers of smoking,” Davis-Lyons said. “We warn people about alcohol consumption. We warn people that fireworks are dangerous.” Warning about the dangers of guns seems like a no-brainer to the two executives, who are from New Zealand, where graphic warnings on cigarette labels have been the standard for more than a decade.
In 1985, Iceland became the first country to affix graphic warning labels to cigarette packs, resulting in a reduction in sales. While scores of other countries have since followed suit, a similar plan by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to unveil its own graphic health warning labels was overruled by a federal court ruling in 2012 after a suit brought by big tobacco companies.
The gun lobby in the United States would likely fight a similar effort for ammunition.
Mark Oliva, director of public affairs at the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade association for the American firearms industry, said that graphic warning labels on ammunition “is not something the industry would support. It would do nothing to contribute to public safety. All these things do is stigmatize gun ownership.”
Joseph Sakran, a trauma surgeon and gun violence survivor who has consulted on the labeling project, acknowledged the likelihood of opposition. “It’s going to be really difficult, because powerful lobbying groups in this country are probably going to make this an uphill battle,” he said.
But Sakran said he feels the concept could prove effective because the focus is on bullets, rather than guns themselves. “I think for a long time no one really thought of focusing on the ammunition piece,” he said. “But if you think about it, the ammunition piece is important, because that’s how people who are either going to commit crimes or are a danger to themselves or others are able to follow through.” The concept also approaches gun violence as a public health problem, which is essential for reform, Sakran said, and it requires a multi-faceted approach. “Think of motor vehicle fatalities. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, we didn’t get rid of cars. We figured out how to make cars safer. We came up with seatbelts and airbags and we made roads safer. It’s that same type of approach.”
Davis-Lyons said he’s consulted with gun reform groups, as well as the American Public Health Association, and believes that attorneys general in each state have the power to implement warning labels on ammunition.
But before he can focus on a trial run, he said he just wants to start the conversation. “People are starting to talk about the need to actually face the reality of what this gun epidemic looks like, but no one has yet found a way to do that in a way that reaches gun owners,” Davis-Lyons said. “So we’re hoping that this is the first step in bringing it to the public.”