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Gun Makers Ruffle Feathers as They Target Women Buyers

September 01, 1992|BRUCE HOROVITZ

A recent Ladies' Home Journal featured "American Classic" recipes for everything from cherry pie to chicken wings. But the magazine outraged many readers with an ad that promoted a classic American recipe for violence: guns.

The ad from Colt Manufacturing Co. features a loving mom tucking her adoring daughter into bed. "Self-protection is more than your right," says the headline placed above photos of two semiautomatic pistols, "it's your responsibility."

Executives at Ladies' Home Journal admit that they shot themselves in the foot by running the full-page ad. "We wouldn't run that ad again," said Joseph A. Lagani, ad director, who said the magazine received letters from more than 100 readers who objected to the full-page ad in regional July editions in the Southeast. But the magazine will consider other, less inflammatory, gun ads in the future. And that is good news for gun makers.

"Firearms are one of the last bastions of male dominance," said Christopher Dolnack, marketing manager of Smith & Wesson, which is also marketing a new line of guns to women. "Today, in 1992, it's OK for women to be CEOs of companies and go into space as astronauts, so why shouldn't they own guns?"

With gun sales continuing to decline nationally, at least outside of the riot-torn Los Angeles area, gun manufacturers are increasingly targeting women. And they aren't alone.

Cigarette and beer makers beat them to it. Virginia Slims has successfully lured female smokers. And Miller Beer and Coors run some beer ads directed specifically at women.

Gun makers won't find women an easy target. Marketing experts point out that perhaps the biggest problem facing gun manufacturers is societal: Most women are taught from early childhood that guns are for men.

But an array of companies associated with the firearms industry consider women among their best hopes for the '90s. Last September, newsstands nationally began to sell Women & Guns, a magazine published by the Second Amendment Foundation and aimed at female gun owners.

Firms that sell firearms accessories--such as purses specially made to conceal guns--are more actively promoting their products. And one woman--who wrote a best-selling book about women and guns--tours the country offering women full-day classes on guns and personal safety.

Some critics are outspoken in their anger over the firearms industry marketing to women.

"Women who buy guns are buying into a false sense of security," said Vanessa Scherzer, assistant director of the Washington-based Center to Prevent Handgun Violence. "Nowhere in these ads does it say that guns are lethal weapons that put the entire family at risk."

The executive director of the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women is also uneasy with the gun ads. "The ads try to make the gun sound like the equalizer," said Patricia Giggans. "But owning a gun is not a guarantee of anything--except maybe violence."

Some gun makers have been accused of trying to frighten women into buying their products. Colt executives refuse to discuss their latest ad--which some critics say exploits these fears for personal safety.

"That's a very topical concern they're tapping into," said Valerie Folkes, marketing professor at USC. "You have a lot of single mothers who are concerned about the safety of their children. But I doubt many women would chose guns as a means of self protection."

Gun makers, however, think otherwise. Of the 65 million gun owners in America, an estimated 15 million are women, according to the National Rifle Assn. That's nearly twice the number that owned them a decade ago. Two years ago, the NRA formed a Women's Issues Office "in response to demand from women," said Liz Swasey, director of the office.

But how to reach women? Many top women's magazines, such as Elle and Glamour, generally refuse to accept ads for guns. Some gun makers have been forced to find other ways to get the word out to women, including hiring women as company representatives to tout their products at gun shows and other venues.

Such familiar gun makers as Colt, Beretta and Smith & Wesson have run ads in Women & Guns magazine. A recent Smith & Wesson ad shows a woman firing a gun at a practice range. Underneath is this headline: What Would Mom Think Now? The firm--which in 1988 was widely criticized for print ads that attempted to attract females with scare tactics--is now trying to attract female buyers with ads that show women can be as tough as men.

That is also the message of Women & Guns, which began as a newsletter three years ago and is now a monthly magazine. "Despite what the anti-gun fanatics continually suggest, there is no conspiracy to force women to buy guns," said Sonny James, the magazine's editor.

James said there is one compelling reason for a woman to own a gun. "If she is violently attacked by a male aggressor, there is nothing else that can even out the odds."

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