If you want a crude sketch of the biggest corporate players in a given year of TV, look no further than the Emmy Award for best commercial. Twenty-five years of winners form an ensemble cast of petty bourgeois preoccupations: Nike, Chrysler, Bud Light. This year’s nominees included a commercial for Meta (the artist formerly known as Facebook), one for Chevy (repping the still-muscular auto spend), two for Apple (a perennial contender), and two for the prevention of school shootings—one of which won the Emmy.
This marks the second time in three years that an ad addressing gun violence has been awarded. That might strike you as dystopian, but it’s actually a positive sign. Commercials, the most expensive and lumbering ad units, tend to reflect ideas that have already matured in the marketplace. If most ads exist to stoke desire for a product or indulgence, public-service advertising is a kind of counterprogramming, going back to government wartime messages exhorting Americans to conserve resources. Public-health campaigns, in particular, face the uphill battle of directing people away from their usual patterns of consumption. Eat less meat, don’t drink and drive, resist the urge to light up: These have always been hard sells, even putting aside their inherent opposition to industry profits.
Cigarettes posed the ultimate public-health dilemma for much of the 20th century. Not only were cigarettes addictive, affordable, and ubiquitous, but smoking was also a personal choice that, to many, verged on a political right. Tobacco cultivation predates the existence of the United States, and cigarette manufacturers seized on that sense of heritage, gesturing toward a consistent, alluring myth: that smoking was innately American. “Marlboro Man, freedom, patriotism … there’s all this Americana imagery around smoking going back a hundred years,” Tim Nudd, the editor in chief of the Clio Awards (essentially the Golden Globes of advertising), told me.
In its search for new users, Big Tobacco embarked on a campaign of media carpet-bombing, which it funded with a massive marketing war chest. (Mad Men’s most plausible moment might be when an ad-agency executive warns that a tobacco client accounts for 71 percent of his firm’s business.) Thanks to its deep pockets and canny maneuvering, the industry survived decades of research on the adverse effects of smoking, not to mention the death of millions. Plus, smoking was seen as cool—part of an aesthetic that Big Tobacco didn’t invent but diligently copied.
The gun lobby isn’t so different, according to Michael Siegel, a public-health professor at Tufts University. “Thirty years ago, the tobacco industry was like the NRA,” he told me. Cigarette makers had a strong grip on Congress and a history of fending off critics with the same kind of hollow, nationalist copy heard in its commercials. Decreasing Americans’ dependence on cigarettes demanded a widespread attitude adjustment that lawmaking alone couldn’t deliver—a belief that smoking wasn’t just dangerous but societally toxic.
The NRA and its political allies have maintained a similar legislative impasse, though one aided by gun ownership’s status as a constitutionally protected right, not just a culturally imagined one. Decades of NRA doctrine have also helped redraw social lines, gerrymandering new boundaries between people whose core values might not otherwise be in conflict. To break new ground, gun-violence-prevention advocates want to reframe the story of guns in America by lifting a page from the anti-smoking playbook.