THE BLOG

The New Marlboro Man: Gun Marketing and Taking Responsibility

12/16/2012 11:03 am ET | Updated Feb 15, 2013

In my previous blog in the aftermath of the tragic Connecticut shooting, I made a connection between the tobacco and firearms industries. This was not an effort to compare the two products but a statement about the common elements between them, namely marketing and distribution.

The tobacco industry has long sold smoking by portraying it as cool to Americans. From the iconic Marlboro man to clever product placement in Hollywood movies, cigarette manufacturers systematically shaped the zeitgeist to glamorize their product and appeal to consumers.

Luckily for us, that phenomenon is a relic of the past. The old Marlboro man is extinct, John McClane no longer lights up in the Die Hard movies and even James Bond seems to have kicked the addictive habit. Cigarette ads are no longer allowed on television and tobacco companies dare not dress up their cancer sticks in the garb of a cool habit. The business itself has not gone away but it has certainly been forced to curb its marketing practices to be more responsible.

That is what must happen with guns, too.

Firearms, like tobacco, are sold on the foundation of coolness. From guns that radiate masculinity and war to marketing campaigns calculated to bring out the inner John Wayne in all of us, the industry consistently pushes guns on us just like tobacco companies sold cigarettes in the very recent past. It is a lifestyle marketing strategy revolving around the cowboy culture. People are free, of course, to reject the product, but judging by the number of firearms that are in the possession of civilians today, the marketing practices seem to be working pretty well. Simply put, gun companies have managed to convince Americans that their deadly products are great to own and cool to use. The new Marlboro man might be smoke-free but he still carries a .45 Colt.

The second part of this is distribution, where once again the parallels between tobacco and guns is striking. The cigarette industry has always maintained that it is not obliged to ensure that its products are not sold to unqualified smokers; as far as manufacturers are concerned, their responsibility ends at the retailer. This would be fine if not for the fact that cigarettes carry serious health consequences for smokers and particularly for underage users. That raises the standard of oversight that must be applied to the distribution of the product, and the judicial system in the U.S. agrees.

Gun manufacturers are the same. They refuse to take responsibility for who ultimately buys their products, just as long as they have sold it to a licensed dealer. Whether the dealer has a bad reputation or keeps poor records, or whether the state in question has a high incidence of straw men buying weapons and transporting them across state lines for eventual sale to criminals, the manufacturers really don't seem to care. This is unacceptable. In an ideal world, gun companies would provide better oversight and tougher standards of their own accord, but since that is clearly not happening, society must force the issue.

The solution, as I mentioned in my earlier piece, is litigation.

In the same way that individuals and states have gone after tobacco companies to enforce responsibility, they must do the same for the gun industry. Nothing scares a private enterprise more than a loss of profits and so this is where America can finally score a real victory against the reckless marketing and irresponsible distribution practices of gun manufacturers. Faced with the prospect of costly legal battles, bad press, and large settlements, my bet is that the firearms business will find it much less expensive to change their ways than to take on an entire nation sick of the violence their products enable.

It will not be an easy fight, of course, and tobacco litigation actually went through several waves of failure before the courts finally began to recognize the validity of the plaintiffs' claims, but it got there, and it made a meaningful dent in the spread of cigarettes. It is time to replicate that model for guns, and perhaps we may be able to restore some type of order to an arena that has increasingly become like the Wild West.

And as the horrific event of this past week demonstrates, there is no time left to waste.

Sanjay Sanghoee has worked at leading investment banks and at a multi-billion dollar hedge fund. He has an MBA from Columbia Business School and is the author of a thriller titled Merger, which the Chicago Tribune called "Timely, gripping, and original." Please visit www.sanghoee.com for more details.