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SOCAL P.O.V. / PATT MORRISON

Buy a Gun, Get a Free Lipstick

March 29, 1998|PATT MORRISON

Anyone who's slumbered through a midwinter economics class or a midterm election should have been able to retain at least one useful macroeconomic metaphor for cocktail chatter purposes: guns vs. butter, the zero-sum spending choices that nations and even households must make.

I can't remember the last time that anyone of my acquaintance bought either a gun or butter, on the principle that both can kill you, one way or another. Yet the metaphor survives, like "dialing" a telephone number. Informants "drop a dime" when they turn in some evildoer, even though local pay-phone calls are now 35 cents. Callers are still urged to "dial" a number, even though the touch-tone age has reduced the rotary dial phone to a handsome conversation piece that's hardly ever used for communication.

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So neither guns nor butter is what you'd call a growth industry these days, but neither is giving up without a fight. I admire that in a mass-marketed product. Butter has gone "light" or "lite" or both, and guns have gone chic, or tried to, going after the women's market the way that cigarettes did with the breakthrough Virginia Slims campaign. (Sure, you're slim; lung cancer has a way of doing that.)

But guns . . . . If Nancy Reagan, who spawned more demand for red knit suits than mall Santas, can't create a popularity surge for copies of that "tiny little gun" she acknowledged keeping on hand, something is wrong here.

A University of Chicago study a couple of years back showed that in the 15 years since 1980, gun ownership by women hadn't risen above 8%. There must be a reason that women are buying cars, houses and lug wrenches--but not guns.

Surely it can't be the swath of grief, injury and death from firearms. Risk hasn't deterred American consumers from fast food or fast automobiles.

No, I blame you, the gun industry. With a drumbeat of hysterical crime reportage that makes it look like you bought and paid for the 6 o'clock news, you can't do better at scaring women into the gun-buying ranks than 8%? Guys, you may be able to fieldstrip an M-16 inside of a minute, but you couldn't sell cut-rate corneas to a blind man.

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Here's your problem. It dawned on me, as I watched a cop friend trying to buy a handbag that could hold both her purse stuff and her gun while she's off duty.

Nobody sells just one product anymore. It's passe. You have to market a whole line.

The ranking genius in this technique is Ralph Lauren, who makes everything for the home but toilet paper and everything for the body but a coffin.

Oh sure, one gun maker in the Southern California "ring of fire" came up with a women's handgun with a pink grip. Big deal. Where's the pink holster, the free-with-purchase paper practice targets with Rush Limbaugh on them?

Where's your gift-with-purchase offer that always coaxes women into first-time buying from some cosmetic line that they'd never patronized before? "Buy our gun, get a free lipstick in a realistic-looking brass 'bullet' swivel case."

Where are your accessories? "A free can of Mace with every gun purchase, for those nights when even a little gun is a little too much. Your choice of designer pouch, Victorian Lace or Night Out Spandex." Or aromatherapy gunpowder in three scents: "Relaxed but Ready," "Cool Caliber" and "In My Sights."

Address the unspoken worries of the kind of ladies who might be interested in your product: Offer trigger guards and nail guards and claim: "No embarrassing accidental bloodshed, and no annoying ruined manicures."

And where is your advertising? Nowhere. What do you think you're manufacturing here, some product like booze or cigarettes that you can't even advertise on TV? Wise up.

"The Lady Wesson--it's not a female oil wrestler." Or, "Once, the only thing women were supposed to know about Wesson is that you could fry chicken in it. Now you can shoot the turkeys, too."

"The Lady Beretta, for those days when you don't feel so fresh--but he might."

I admit that semiautomatics would probably be a much tougher sell when it comes to female purchasers, but it's not impossible. You need to be a little playful. Spin-off perfumes could go over big: "The alluring fragrance of Oil of AK--the one weapon more powerful than a semiautomatic." "Oil of AK: a fragrance to make him shoot first and ask questions later."

And everything you sell should be accompanied by your industry quality pledge: "The only accessory we can't sell you is the one you already have--a hole in the head."

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