History is a Warm Gun

by John Reichel

In the last several years, the issue of gun safety in America is gaining more attention. Due to a rise in gun related accidents and disasters, Americans are becoming more concerned about what their country can do to prevent these tragedies. These concerns have sparked debate and encouraged the growth of various non-profit organizations to share various views on gun control and gun safety. With this plethora of organizations, there are plenty of examples of brand storytelling to choose from, but there a few examples that really stick out from the rest, that really set organizations apart from the surplus of options. But one of these groups has made media attention with an online PSA and has helped provide a great example of brand storytelling: States United to Prevent Gun Violence.

Logo for State United to Prevent Gun Violence, the creators of the “Guns with History” video

States United is a national non-profit organization with the goal of preventing gun related violence through the use of education and awareness, using various mediums to accomplish their goal. One medium that has garnered attention of both the public and the media has been through YouTube videos. States United started posting these videos since 2013 and they pack emotional power, usually for the goal of spreading a petition across the Internet while striving to fulfill States United’s mission statement. Due to the organization being a non-profit who exist off of donations, it is safe to assume these videos are produced with these funds, but it is not clearly labeled on the website or the videos.

On March 17th, 2015, States United posted a video entitled “Guns with History”. This video is a single 3:27 minute video, accompanied by its own website, about a social experiment done in New York City. This experiment begins when a new “gun shop” is constructed; offering help for contemplating first time gun purchasers. Cameras are hidden throughout the store to record the various different customers coming in, to show the authenticity of the project and provide evidence that this story was a real life case, not actors in a recording studio. The twist is, all of the guns in the store are representations of the guns used in various gun accidents and tragedies throughout history, such as the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. As the salesclerk explains each gun and its history to the customers, they slowly but surely change their minds about buying a gun, and then explain their reasoning after they leave the store to a camera crew.

Screenshot of the gun store in the video “Guns with History”

Now, this style of content is very similar to other videos that States United has made. Organizations such as these tend to use a “shock value” to help embed their messages in the heads of the public. This PSA ties very well with the mission statement of States United, contributing to the organization’s overall goal. Nonetheless, what really separates this story driven PSA from the rest of the States United’s content, or other similar campaigns done by other organizations, is the real world reactions and the originality of the idea. When a gun safety organization tries to spread awareness about gun safety, the last thing many people would consider doing would be starting a gun shop. Usually, these organizations rely on methods such as celebrity statements to get the message across. Granted, its not a gun shop that will stay after the social experiment ended, but still the point stands; the uniqueness really stuck out against anything this organization had done, both in the idea but also the shock value of the subject matter. By having first time gun buyers hold guns involved in traumatic events both cause surprise, sadness and discomfort for both the viewers of the PSA as well as the customers. With the inclusion of the real life reactions of the average New Yorker, a great amount of realness is added to the piece. With the viewer seeing real people shaken up by the horrors of the guns, depth is added to the piece. This also makes the PSA exceedingly more memorable for the viewer then if it was a simple dramatization or scripted scene. Competitors on either sides of the gun debate have not quite done a combination of the unique set up and the real reactions.

Screenshot of gunswithhistory.com

Due to the controversial subject matter of the content and the unique story being told, the publics’ reactions were far and in-between. In the world of journalism, different news outlets praised the commercial for spreading its message in a way that was hard to ignore, but also accused the organization for having a very polarized look on the issue. The public opinion was also mixed, some claiming the PSA isn’t very effective while others claim the brilliance of it. The extreme polarity of the reviews of this commercial may be seem like a negative thing, but this commercial did something vitally important for the organization: it became known. This commercial was controversial, and may not have boded well with some people, but it got the discussion started about the organization and its cause across the internet, something that many organizations can only dream of. The influx in attention could bring more people to the cause of States United and could lead to more donations, causing the organization to grow. The controversy brought press, but this can be a very dangerous maneuver. Granted, people will hear about the organization, but if the commercial’s story was too edgy or disrespectful, the press could turn very quickly against the organization, causing possible irreversible damage to the organization’s P.R.

In conclusion, through the study of States United’s PSA, there are several lessons to be learned about brand storytelling: the effectiveness of using real public reactions, the potency of originality and uniqueness in storytelling form, and both the benefit and danger of being controversial. As the issue of gun regulation grows in America, more organizations such as this will grow, but as time goes on, these organizations will have to work double as hard to get noticed in the realm of brand storytelling.

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