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Can PSAs Work For Gun Control As They Did To Combat Cigarettes?

This year two commercials for the prevention of school shootings, one of which won an Emmy, were among the ensemble of nominees of varying brands, reports The Atlantic. It was the second time in three years that an ad addressing gun violence has won an award. Commercials, the most expensive ad units, are used to reflect ideas that have already matured in the marketplace. Gun-violence-prevention ads face a challenge, as the name seems to attract controversy. Nearly 400 million firearms already circulate through labyrinthine state and local systems. They trade hands with mixed transparency, flowing from established retailers such as Dick’s Sporting Goods to gun-show booths to secondary sales and a fathomless black market. Advocates and lawmakers can attack the problem of gun violence from dozens of angles, but PSAs, which find success by seeding simple, powerful messages, are often seen as too blunt an instrument to communicate policy proposals. Violence-prevention ads must instead make a more indirect appeal, conscripting community members to help stop shootings before they happen.


Public service ads were not designed to induce social change. Many grassroots groups know this, but they’re emboldened by past campaigns that did alleviate social ills. Some are experimenting with new techniques and more pointed strategies, taking cues from one influential mission in particular: the fight to end smoking. Cigarettes posed the ultimate public-health dilemma for much of the 20th century. Not only were cigarettes addictive, affordable, and ubiquitous, but smoking was also a personal choice that, to many, verged on a political right. The gun lobby isn’t so different, says Michael Siegel, a public-health professor at Tufts University. Nicole Hockley, who co-founded Sandy Hook Promise after losing her son Dylan in the 2012 massacre, described the need to create a “safe space” for gun owners to engage in conversation. Sandy Hook Promise is behind this year’s Emmy-winning commercial “Teenage Dream,” which features a rendition of the Katy Perry song by survivors of school shootings. They sing it hesitantly, with a sparse piano accompaniment, giving the adolescent lyrics a certain subtext. After a short title appears—“The teenage dream is not what it used to be”—each survivor tells the nightmarish details of their experience. The video concludes with the nonprofit’s long-running message to “know the signs.”

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