Straight Down the Barrel: Dramatizing Masculinity in Gun Advertisements

During the third deadliest mass shooting in American history, Adam Lanza used a military-style Bushmaster .233 rifle to murder twenty-eight children and adults attending the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut (Almasy). Forensic authorities determined that Lanza shot all but two victims multiple times, frequently reloading his weapon as he ambled through the building. The greatest number of fatalities occurred in two classrooms near the school’s entrance, where children between the ages of six and seven attended the first grade (Cox & Scheyder).

While the shocking massacre prompted a national discussion on gun control legislation, Bushmaster Firearms International seized the opportunity to run a redemptive campaign for its commercial AR-platform rifles in publications such as Maxim. In strikingly bold font emblazoned beneath the image of a sleek rifle, the advertisement reads, “Consider your Man Card reissued.” To the right of this large text, the advertisement explicates its use of the term Man Card to underscore its message: “In a world of rapidly depleting testosterone, The Bushmaster Man Card declares and confirms that you are a Man’s Man, the last of a dying breed, with all the rights and privileges duly afforded. You carry it in your wallet, ready to show at a moment’s notice, instantly ending the discussion for any who would doubt you.” Furthermore, to distance the rifle from the Sandy Hook shooter, Bushmaster’s advertisement assures its viewer that Adam Lanza was not a card-carrying “Man’s Man.” Indeed, it states, “Adam L. is just unmanly. Adam L. decries the eating of red meat while extolling the virtues of soy-based substitutes for pretty much everything else on Earth. Man card revoked.” Under this scathing critique of Adam Lanza’s manhood, the advertisement includes a link to revoke a friend’s Man Card through a humorous email sent by the firearms manufacturer’s website.

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Bushmaster’s Man Card gimmick is one example of the many marketing campaigns that target the primary consumer base of the firearms industry with the concept of masculinity. As a piece of corporate advertising, the image accomplished its purpose. In a subliminal manner, the marketing ploy persuades its consumers to identify with an AR-platform rifle despite its close association with a mass murderer. Indeed, this process of imbuing a deadly weapon with the values of its consumers is an instantly compelling rhetorical maneuver that warrants further speculation. In understanding the process of how this advertisement communicates such a direct and convincing message of masculinity to its audience, Kenneth Burke’s rhetorical theory of dramatism adopts a new sort of relevance. In The Elements of Dramatism, David Blakesley sets out to define the term “dramatism”:

Dramatism is a philosophy of language, with stress upon the original meaning of philosophy [philo = life + sophos = knowledge], the study of language as a way of living and knowing […] The dramatistic view of the world holds that language is not simply a tool to be used by people (actors), but the basis for human beings acting together and thus, of all human relations. Words act, in other words, to define, persuade, appease, divide, identify, entertain, victimize, move, inspire, and so on. (5)

As Blakesley begins to suggest, human beings are compelled to pinpoint essential qualities that set us apart from other life forms and distinguish us from one another. This internal desire is the basis of an entire pillar of philosophy, in which thinkers such as the pragmatists, subjectivists, and objectivists offer their own definition of what constitutes a human being. Likewise, Burke crafts his own take on the definition of a human being, claiming “our words define us” and “our identities are but composites of our symbol systems”we are simply symbol-using animals (Blakesley 6). In Language as Symbolic Action, Burke explained, “though man is typically the symbol-using animal, he clings to a kind of naïve verbal realism that refuses to realize the full extent of the role played by symbolicity in his notions of reality” (5). Blakesley clarifies that what Burke calls “naïve verbal realism” is “our tendency to think of the self and the world as present and real without heed of the possibility that our sense of who we are, what we do, and what we think is a consequence of our symbol-systems” (7). In this way, Burke’s theory of dramatism explains how these symbol systems mediate the experiences of different human beings and sustain what we conceptualize as thought itself.

Rather than portraying language as a means of simply conveying information, dramatism analyzes language and thought as modes of action, specifically as symbolic action (Blakesley 5). According to Burke’s theory, human beings use language in patterned discourses. Texts, in turn, persuade human beings to act using reoccurring patterns of discourse (Brummett 1). When viewed as a foundation for understanding the language of the advertisement, the theory of dramatism aligns closely with the classical definition of rhetoric as “the art of persuasion.” When utilized in a rhetorical context, Burke’s study of language as symbolic action is particularly useful for discerning possible means of persuasion in complex situations (Blakesley 8). Granted the central role of patterned discourse, this methodology for conceptualizing human motivation serves as a foundation for analyzing the overt language of masculinity that operates rhetorically in the Bushmaster advertisement, which achieves the symbolic feat of persuading, entertaining, and identifying with its audience. One specific tool along these lines is Burke’s core structure of the dramatistic pentad, a metalingustic method for examining motivations based on the parts of a dramatic narrative. As he states in the opening line of his A Grammar of Motives, the pentad functions to solve the puzzle, “What is involved when we say what people are doing and why they are doing it?” (xv). In breaking down the pentad, Blakesley explains that it encompasses five terms: “Act (what happened?), Scene (where and when was the act performed?), Agent (who did it?), Agency (how was it done?), and Purpose (why was it done?)” (8). For example, in the case of the Bushmaster advertisement, we could use the pentad to identify the following: the commercial promotion of the rifle as the Act; a society in which guns are readily available to anyone who wants them, and where violence is widely perceived to be a solution to problems as the Scene; the company’s marketing branch as the Agent; the identification of the rifle with the consumer’s hyper-masculine values and desires as the Agency; and the final endgame of profiting off the sales of the rifles as the Purpose.

However, Blakesley offers a crucial caveat while delineating the pentad’s construction of such tightly woven interrelationships“It is important to remember, though, that Burke has the symbolic act in mind and not necessarily, for example, motion that does not involve language and thus motive, such as tripping over a stick” (8; emphasis mine). Indeed, Burke’s pentad aims to reveal the motives of a person by grammatically articulating how seemingly disjointed ideas piece together to explain purposeful human action. A necessary understanding in Burke’s theory of dramatism is that words have contained meanings in and of themselves. The rigid definitions of words, by contrast, become obscured as they interact together in complex sentences that create and change contexts. A philosophy of grammar, such as Burke’s theory of dramatism, is capable of embracing the infinite variety engendered by the countless possible combinations of words: “Burke is not interested in developing a grammar of motives so that he can identify the ‘right’ relationships among terms for human action […] He is, however, deeply interested in how and why we identify and argue for the motives we value” (9).

Similarly, the Bushmaster advertisement is successful because it speaks to the company’s customer base by conveying their values and desires through what Burke might call a discourse patterned with distinctly masculine language. Here, it is imperative to layout the concept of identification as it pertains to the theory of dramatism. In A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke defines rhetoric as identification, or “the use of words by human agents to form attitudes or induce actions in other human agents,” in order to examine how human beings identify with the motives that they value (41). Identification serves as a guidepost to symbolic motive by allowing human beings to think of words as symbolic acts that take place within a larger system of signs. Blakesley describes this meta-cognitive shift like how “words in a diction derive their meaning from other words” (10). We can study our prior associations and interpretations of words to better comprehend their symbolic motives. For instance, take the word “gun.” The most fundamental meaning of the familiar term “gun” comes from its dictionary definition, which is “a weapon consisting of a metal tube, with mechanical attachments, from which projectiles are shot by the force of an explosive” (“Gun”). We can also look to popular usages of the word “gun” to explore abstract associations in phrases such as “a hired gun,” which connotes an assassin, hitman, or professional killer. Additionally, we can consider the social contexts of famous guns like the rifle used by Adam Lanza during the Sandy Hook shooting, as well as fictional guns, such as the curiously named “Peacekeeper,” an imaginary weapon that players can shoot at their enemies in the videogame, Call of Duty: Black Ops II. (Aside, the Peacemaker is a real weapon.) We could even turn to the dramatic principle of “Chekhov’s gun,” which insinuates that each memorable element in a work of fiction is necessary and irreplaceable: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off” (Shchukin). Indeed, we gleam our interpretation of the word “gun” through such diverse connotations and denotations, all of which involve some interconnected notion of fatality and finality.

With this specific method of analysis, we are able to start probing the symbolic motives underlying the Bushmaster advertisement, as well as the values and desires being utilized in the language of the Man Card campaign. There are blatant patterns of language associated with masculine chauvinism in the advertisement’s bolded text. Case in point: the advertisement promises consumers “all the rights and privileges duly afforded” by the possession of a Man Card, which the advertisement implies is obtained through the purchase and subsequent ownership of a Bushmaster rifle. Taken as a noun, the word “right” denotes both “that which is morally correct, just, or honorable” and “a moral or legal entitlement to have or obtain something or to act in a certain way” (“Right”). When employed as an adjective, the word “right” is defined as something “true or correct as fact” (“Right). Similarly, the word “privilege” denotes “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available to a particular person or group of people” (“Privilege”). Both of these words are used in familiar idioms within the contemporary English language. For example, a religious leader can have a “God-given right” to his or her title, and an individual can have “bragging rights” for a particularly impressive achievement; likewise, we call the misuse of power by an authority an “abuse of privilege.” Additionally, we as adults living in Western society have personal and historical associations connected to the words “right” and “privilege”. We say the right to keep and bear arms is protected by the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution. In a different regard, we say that a child loses a privilege such as watching television as punishment for unacceptable behavior. All of these interpretations of the words “right” and “privilege” contain a striking connection to ideas of power and dominance. Not by coincidence, these values are largely associated with the primary consumer base of firearms manufacturers.

Demographics obtained by the Pew Research Center on gun-owning households confirmed several longstanding beliefs about gun owners with data. White southerners are significantly more likely to have a gun at home than whites in other regions; rural residents and older adults are more likely than other Americans to own a gun; and Republicans are twice as likely as Democrats to be members of a gun-owning household. The research demonstrated that Americans who own guns also identify themselves differently than Americans who do not own guns: “According to the survey, adults in gun-owning households are more likely to think of themselves as an ‘outdoor person’ (68% vs. 51%) or ‘a typical American’ (72% vs. 62%), and to say ‘honor and duty are my core values’ (59% vs. 48%). About six-in-ten gun household members (64%) say they ‘often feel proud to be American’ (Morin, “The demographics and politics of gun-owning households”). Furthermore, a study by Edward L. Glaeser and Spencer Glendon published in The American Economic Review produced similar findings, namely that gun owners are less likely to be college graduates living in cities and more likely to be white men with a high school level education over the age of 40 residing in the South (458).

In the article “Men, Dogs, Guns, and Cars: The Semiotics of Rugged Individualism,” Elizabeth C. Hirschman touches upon the role of “core societal values” in the realm of advertising production and reception that is targeted at the group described by Glaeser, Glendon, and the Pew Research Center (9). In her analysis of gun advertisements, Hirschman notes that various types of weapons are commonly anthropomorphized. She describes a Ruger Model 96 rifle characterized in one headline as “always ready, rugged and reliable” (18). Based on this cross-cultural research on the American cultural values, Hirschman fuses the rhetorical, mythological, and metaphorical aspects of advertising imagery focused on firearms:

Rugged individualism is one set of behaviors and ideals characteristic of U.S. society. It is, at its core, a warrior philosophy that accepts the possibility of great personal peril, even violent death, in the pursuit of self-perfection and the dominance of a given field of action. It is also a philosophy and a mode of consumption that invites critical commentary and normative debate. That advertisements are used to carry and communicate this ideology makes advertising a party to the debate [on gun legislation]. (20)

Hirschman’s “warrior philosophy” is a convenient analogy for the interpretation of manhood used in the Bushmaster advertisement to encourage the sale of the company’s rifles. Both interpretations entail an act of violence fueled by a linguistic strategy rooted in domination. While the advertisement for the Ruger Model 96 rifle appeals to violent sensibilities involving individualism and self-defense, the advertisement for the Bushmaster AR-platform rifle appeals to violent sensibilities involving “the rights and privileges” of masculinity, a gendered sense of entitlement threatened by revocation at the hands of outwardly feminizing forces, such as vegetarianism, as explicitly noted in the Bushmaster advertisement. In the both scenarios, the advertisements persuade consumers to buy guns in order to embody their core societal values and satisfy their desire for dominance. Additionally, Hirschman’s above quote importantly serves to underscore the function of hierarchy in Burke’s theory of dramatism. As Hirschman’s concept of “warrior philosophy” elevates “the pursuit of self-perfection,” so too is Burke’s theory of dramatism oriented towards a hierarchical sense of perfection. Burke expresses in Language as Symbolic Action that while human beings progress and reach admirable goals because they are motivated by an instinctive strife toward perfection, this involuntary urge for “rotten” perfection is dangerous; Burke gives his reader an example in the form of the Nazis in order to warn them of ambition’s perils (20). In the case of the marketing campaign discussed in this paper, perfection resembles uncompromised masculinity.

We ought to consider the deluge of symbols that compel us into action in order to avoid the risk of conflating manipulative symbolic systems with reality. After investigating the symbolic systems within the Bushmaster advertisement, we should not assume that purchasing a rifle truthfully lends an individual an amorphous litany of rights and privileges through a “Man Card.” Indeed, the marketing campaign’s sole function is to maximize profits by convincing consumers to buy the product. To this extent, confusing the reality of being a man with the advertisement’s interpretation of masculinity is dangerousthe equivalent of staring down the barrel of a gun.

Works Cited

Almasy, Steve. “Newton Shooter’s Guns: What We Know.” CNN. Cable News Network, 19. Dec. 2012. Web. 28 June 2016.

Blakesley, David. The Elements of Dramatism. New York: Longman, 2002. Print.

Brummett, Barry. Landmark Essays on Kenneth Burke. Davis, CA: Hermagoras, 1993. Print.

Burke, Kenneth. Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: U of California, 1966. Print.

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: U of California, 1969. Print.

Glaeser, Edward L. “Who Owns Guns? Criminals, Victims, and the Culture of Violence.” The American Economic Review 88.2, Papers and Proceedings of the Hundred and Tenth Annual Meeting of the American Economic Association (1998): 458-62. JSTOR. Web. 23 June 2016.

Hirschman, Elizabeth C. “Men, Dogs, Guns, and Cars: The Semiotics of Rugged Individualism.” Journal of Advertising 32.1 (2003): 9-22. JSTOR. Web. 23 June 2016.

Morin, Rich. “The Demographics and Politics of Gun-owning Households.” Pew Research Center RSS. N.p., 15 July 2014. Web. 28 June 2016.

Stampler, Laura. “Sex, Safety, And Machismo: How Guns Are Advertised in America.” Business Insider. Busines Insider Inc., 20 Dec. 2012. Web. 23 June 2016.

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