Through dozens of mass shootings, one ad agency keeps producing the NRA’s slick messaging

Credit ad agency Ackerman McQueen for the NRA's aggressive messaging.

Screenshot from "Are the President's kids more important than yours?" NRA ad from 2013. CREDIT: YouTube/NRA
Screenshot from "Are the President's kids more important than yours?" NRA ad from 2013. CREDIT: YouTube/NRA

In the wake of the Parkland shooting and under pressure from anti-gun activists and some of the most impressive teenagers America has seen in quite some time, a number of companies have been publicly severing their ties with the National Rifle Association.

One company, however, has stuck with the NRA for three decades: ad agency Ackerman McQueen.

Ackerman McQueen has been the NRA’s ad agency since the early 1980s, AdAge reported in 2013, “making it one of the longest-running collaborations in advertising history.” It counts as clients a handful of local organizations, including the Oklahoma City Ballet and the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum, and some larger brands, like the United Way. But “the NRA is easily the biggest — and likely most profitable — account on its roster.” And, in turn, Ackerman McQueen is the key player in the NRA’s media dominance.

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Ackerman McQueen is standing by the NRA even now, as heaps of corporations are ending their own long-running partnerships. Just a week ago, it would have been tough to rent a car without inadvertently giving money to a company that supported the NRA; Avis, Budget, Hertz, Enterprise, Alamo, and National all offered discounts to NRA members. But corporations, after years of enjoying the legal benefits of being considered people, have apparently developed some remarkably human-like feelings, like guilt and/or empathy. Amid public outcry, a growing number of companies are canceling their partnerships with the gun lobby.

But Ackerman McQueen and the NRA’s bond is an especially intimate relationship for an agency and a client: As the Washington Post’s Peter Finn told AdAge, “Ackerman McQueen is actually embedded with the NRA; several staffers sit in the NRA’s offices.” And at one time, the wife of NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre worked for the Mercury Group, an Ackerman McQueen subsidiary. And according to the Ackerman McQueen website, the agency is still representing the NRA.

The Oklahoma City-based agency originally appealed to the NRA because the Don Drapers of Madison Avenue “didn’t know which end of the gun the bullet came out of,” as a biography of founder Raymond Ackerman put it. Since then, Ackerman McQueen has championed the NRA through shooting after shooting after shooting after shooting.

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As the Washington Post put it in 2013, “The ad agency played a pivotal role in its transformation from a sportsman’s group to one of Washington’s most powerful lobbying organizations, shaping a message rooted in uncompromising combativeness, securing its influence inside the NRA and reaping millions of dollars in contracts.”

Ackerman McQueen spun the Sandy Hook massacre, in which a man armed with an AR-15 killed 20 children and six adults, as a tragedy wrought by movies and video games and a media that “sells and sows” violence.

Another spot that ran one month after the Sandy Hook shooting called President Barack Obama an “elitist hypocrite” because his daughters had Secret Service protection at school but he did not support the NRA’s call for arming security at all schools across the country. The ad asked, “Are the president’s kids more important than yours? Then why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools when his kids are protected by armed guards at their school?” The Obama White House called the ad “repugnant and cowardly.”

Screenshot from NRA/YouTube
Screenshot from NRA/YouTube

Crucially, Ackerman McQueen masterminded the NRA’s launch of its own media channels, which ultimately became NRATV. As Quartz noted earlier this week, the NRA is technically banned from advertising a month before a primary election and 60 days before a general election under the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. But Ackerman McQueen found a loophole, which the firm says was “born out of a refusal to be silenced by mainstream media” and which amounts to: if you can’t beat them, be them. “If political free speech is restricted to news media, why not go deeper into the news business yourself?

From Quartz:

A news channel dedicated to “the most comprehensive video coverage of Second Amendment issues, events and culture,” was a perfect way to get around the ban, and engage directly with the grassroots supporters of the organization, who could tune into NRA News to hear a self-professed “unmatched authority, expertise and perspective on Second Amendment issues.”

Ackerman McQueen was also integral in the rise of Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA. Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist, told the Washington Post in 2013 that “Wayne LaPierre couldn’t have given a speech 25 years ago to save his life. Now he gives a very effective speech to the NRA membership. It’s a testament to how effective Ackerman McQueen is. And it’s a testament that education works.”