Historical Ad Analysis: Firearms

Firearms have been part of the American culture since the 1600’s. They were a frontiersman’s best friend and truest companion; a necessity that no colonial settler could do without. However, firearms of this period were largely homemade. Mass production had not been perfected and each individual firearm, even if it was the same model made by the same company, was unique. Due to this, there was very little advertising of firearms in early America. Frontiersmen acquired them through barter or produced them themselves, negating the need for purchase from a large-scale manufacturer. This all changed when Samuel Colt adapted the standardization of parts to be used in the production of firearms. Now, every Colt revolver was identical to the next, with interchangeable components. This made firearms easier to acquire, repair, and more reliable, adding to the gun’s marketability. A decade after this event, in the 1910’s, we see the beginning of the mass marketing of firearms to the general public. The three selected ads are all from this early period of marketing and are from three separate companies advertising three separate models of firearm.

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The first ad is from the Colt Firearms Company, the oldest mass producer of guns in the world. It depicts the Colt .45 model 1911 automatic pistol, enlarged and at the center of the ad, surrounded by words of praise and various accolades it has accumulated from government and military officials who had just adopted it as the official firearm of the U.S. armed forces. Above the image in bold font lies the word “VICTORY”. By use of the government praise, the advertisement is attempting to persuade the potential buyer, most likely a male, that if the Colt is good enough for the entire military then it must be good enough for the average Joe like him. This is very effective as a marketing strategy because the typical purchaser of firearms at this time period were middle class male citizens looking for effective protection. The military pedigree effectively assures the buyer that the stopping power is efficient because it leads to the assumption that if the military would bring this pistol into combat to deal with a trained enemy soldier, then it must be good against a home invader or street thug. In the early 20th century, firearms were purchased mainly for self-defense, just like they are today. So assuring that it is good enough to protect a soldier from a well-armed opponent is very convincing to a civilian looking for a powerful tool of self-defense. In addition, the word “VICTORY” naïvely connotes that, with possession of this firearm, the shooter would be assured to come out on top in all of his altercations. This further instills confidence in the purchaser and persuades them to buy the firearm.

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The above advertisement is from the Iver Johnson Revolver Company. It depicts a uniformed police officer apprehending one suspect and defending himself from another assailant with the Iver Johnson revolver. Above the scene is depicted the slogan “always ready,” alluding to the reliability of the pistol. The add also goes on to depict the revolver’s various safety features, stating, very presumptuously, that “accidental discharge is impossible.” This ad exaggerates a great deal about the capabilities of the Iver Johnson revolver. The scene depicted carries the connotation that the power given to the officer in trouble by the Iver Johnson revolver allows him to single handedly overcome two armed assailants. This greatly exaggerates the power given to the user of the weapon and falsely gives law enforcement endorsement of the product through the use of a police officer as the individual in danger. In addition, the statement that an accidental discharge is impossible is plainly false. Accidental discharges occur for a number of reasons besides gun design, and the gun design could eventually fail. Therefore, this statement is entirely presumptuous. It is an attempt in trying to instill confidence in the buyer that the gun would be perfectly safe to the user so he will be more likely to buy it over other models. Despite this fact, the advertisement would be overall successful to an entry-level firearms buyer through its depiction of power transfer to the weapon’s carrier and its assurances of user safety.

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The final advertisement is from the Winchester Firearms Company. It depicts a lone cowboy, backed up into a cliff by a raging grizzly bear, about to defend himself with a Winchester rifle. This particular ad is all about image and the imagination of the potential customer. It puts the idea in the customer’s mind that if they purchase a Winchester, they will be prepared to overcome any obstacle and begin a life of dangerous adventure. This is a very naïve and unrealistic assumption that is conferred to the customer. Just because one owns a certain firearm, this does not mean that the firearm dictates their life following the purchase. The image connotes immense life saving capabilities of the Winchester, as well as conferring the notion that a Winchester can get an individual out of the stickiest of situations. Due to the fact that this ad is so far-fetched, I do not think it would be very effective to serious gun buyers. However, it is very memorable and gives the customer great brand recognition of the Winchester line of rifles.

All of the above advertisements shared one critical similarity: they stressed the gun’s importance in protecting oneself from lethal danger. All of them connote that an individual is doomed do die in perilous circumstances without a firearm to assist them. The ads cement the firearm as critical to comfortable living for the average man. Another trend of these advertisements was the use of the firearm’s pedigree as a selling point. The Colt used the government’s use of it as an endorsement of its capabilities to the average man, as was done by the police’s use for the Iver Johnson revolver and the cowboy’s use for the Winchester. Each respective firearm’s use by well-respected entities gave the purchase of said firearm an effect of supposedly giving the buyer the power of those entities. All in all, these ads reveal a profound insecurity in American society. The need for men to have firearms in order to sufficiently protect themselves and their families, as is depicted in the rhetoric of the three adds, shows that in comparison to other societies, American masculinity in the early 1900’s was very weak. Such affinity for guns was not seen in other societies. In addition, other societies advertised their firearms as for sporting, not home defense, like in the United States. This trend in how firearms were sold reveals that the gun had become a crutch for a male populace either incapable of, or too insecure to, protect itself from danger.

Works Cited

Colt Firearms. “Victory” [213]. Advertisement. Scribner’s Magazine 1911. BrownUniversity Repository. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.

Iver Johnson Revolvers. “Are Always Ready”. Advertisement. Metropolitan MagazineOnline Museum for Iver Johnson Arms. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.

Winchester Repeating Arms Company. [Winchester Calendar]. Advertisement. Winchester Calendar 1917. Huffington Post. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.

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