Guest Column

The podium at Bend Venture Conference at the Tower Theater in Bend October 20, 2017. 

Could a communications campaign aimed at gun-owning households lower the incidence of gun violence in America?

I know it could, and here’s why — a communications program targeting potential arsonists changed my life.

As managing director of a New York communications consulting firm, I received a request for proposal from Aetna, the insurance giant. After passing the first screening round, we were given a test assignment. Aetna asked us to design a communications program to reduce arson. Arsons produce big losses for insurers, of course.

We were surprised to learn that most arson crimes weren’t committed in disadvantaged urban areas, but rather in rural, mostly Southern, communities. The perpetrators were generally young, white men and their motive was revenge — “…you seduced my wife, I’ll burn your house down.”

We also learned that virtually 100% of them get caught. So we recommended a campaign aimed at potential arsonists. Our key message — “Don’t do it — we’re going to catch you!”

We won the account, and I later got recruited to lead the communications organization at Aetna.

Targeting potential arsonists turned out to be pretty easy. There was lots of information available on their lifestyles and the media channels that would reach their demographics.

Could we do the same thing for risky gun owners?

According to a study by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence cited in the New York Times editorial, a gun in the home is 22 times more likely to be used in a family homicide, suicide or accident than to be used in self-defense. And more than 1.5 million children under the age of 18 live in homes with loaded, unsecured guns, making them 16 times more likely to be killed than in safer homes.

Today’s sophisticated marketing and public relations professionals can reach those people. We have the technology, the communications networks and the strategic planning tools to design campaigns targeted at those homes with messages that will resound with the parents.

Technology can help too. If Amazon can recommend a book they think you will like based on your past purchases, those same tools could be used to make America safer.

And we don’t need to do a lot of research to learn about the ways safety can be improved. Just Google “how to keep my gun safe at home” and you’ll get 177 million hits. Even the NRA has advice on gun safety in the home.

Tim Dees, criminal justice professor, said, “Injuries to children from the mishandling of firearms is a 100% preventable problem."

The problem’s not a shortage of advice; it’s a problem of access to that advice, and motivation to employ it. That’s what marketing and communications people do well. We can motivate consumers to seek out products that fill their needs. We can encourage voters to prefer a candidate. We can even change behavior on important social issues like automobile safety or smoking. We can, and should be applying those skills to this critical issue in America.

Lou Capozzi is the former chairman of the MSL Group and teaches in the master’s degree program at the University of Oregon. He is one of the owners of the company that owns The Bulletin.

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