Disarming America with humor

Satire should drive the narrative in the gun control debate, not fear, writes the CEO of School

In this country, it’s impossible to have an unpoliticized debate about gun control. The mere mention of regulation of guns sends both sides of the argument into apoplectic fits of rhetoric and exhortation. I personally believe in the constitutionality of the Second Amendment but wholly reject the notion that any civilian has a right to carry an instrument of mass murder.

My politics notwithstanding, the current debate around gun control in this country is divided (simplistically) into diametrically opposed cultural paradigms: reason and empathy versus fear and hysteria. By all measures of a progressing civilization, the rational and empathetic side should be winning. If as a society we are shrewd enough to sue the tobacco industry for senseless death, we shouldn’t have a problem doing the same to the gun industry.

And, as a democratic society, we shouldn’t need a lot of persuasion to see how we’re all collectively affected by ambivalent gun laws. The advertising industry is exceptionally adept at creating the bonds of human empathy when it comes to selling ideas. Since the tragedy at Sandy Hook, our industry has ramped up the empathy, telling stories of the victims rather than the perpetrators to drive PSA narratives.

These are haunting and evocative stories. The work is often profound and thought-provoking – everything that you would expect from work that is wrought out of sincere, visceral and proactive desire to stop the killing. And yet it hasn’t worked. Or at least not enough to change gun culture in this country as evidenced by recent events in Orlando.

Fear and hysteria is an easy lever to pull because it is so effective at mass mobilization. Anyone who works in the "persuasion business" knows how powerful this diptych can be. And there are plenty of ad agencies, consultancies and PR firms that excel at mixing patriotism with multi-billion-dollar business to create a strong cocktail of class warfare, xenophobia, knee-jerk patriotism and WWE-style machismo.

Thinking hasn’t worked; not-thinking hasn’t worked either. We’ve resorted to our most basic instincts and our highest intellect. Still, we have Orlando.

There may be a third way out of the rational/fearful cycle. Humor. And we in this industry excel at that, too. I propose we mock. I suggest we ridicule and skewer. I offer laughter as the tenor to this discord.

Why not try another way, and as an industry as a whole come together under the banner of satire to drive the narrative? Let’s Puppymonkeybaby the fuck out of this conversation and attract a new throng of constituents that have become adept at tuning out scary messages. Of course, I don’t mean to make light of it. Nor do I want to diminish the enormity of this debate as it truly could define this nation for generations to come. Which is exactly why satire deserves a seat at this cacophonous table.

After all, the notion of satire is to create a genre of creative work in which "vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government or society itself, into improvement." Thanks Wikipedia.

Advertising, arguably, is the standard-bearer of mass satire. We love to find an allegorical enemy and push against it. We instinctively know that humor gets people to pay attention — maybe, just maybe, a little bit more than fear.

Satire is often militant. It often uses the obscene or overly metaphorical to drive home a point. Satirical writing, like copywriting, delights in the double entendre. There’s refreshing cynicism in satire, and satire is a complicit tactic in advertising. I propose it becomes a tactic in the gun debate as well.

Of course that’s not enough. Creatively ridiculing the bastions of the gun industry and their adherents is not going to change minds. Our partners need to get in on the action. Much like the recent brand and business backlash to the "bathroom laws" in North Carolina and elsewhere, we have to recognize that our clients have the power to affect social and cultural change.

Our audience expects brands to walk the walk, not talk the talk. So while satirical expression and cultural ridicule may rob the gun lobby of its rebel-without-a-cause trope, it’s not enough to enact real societal change. Only action can.

We need to impulse our brand partners to act. Like when JetBlue announced this week that it would provide free flights to and from Orlando for immediate family members and domestic partners of victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting. That’s true action, coupled with a JetBlue hashtag that leaves no room for ambivalence to the brand’s actionable solidarity: #WeStandWithOrlando.

Brands can and should adopt levers of social activism. The advertising industry has a role to play in the debate. And brands have a role to play in the divided cultural landscape of this country. We better all get busy.

Max Lenderman is CEO of School.

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