2012 file photo of an National Rifle Association cap. Credit: Seth Perlman | AP

Immediately after the horror of the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the National Rifle Association halted all of its digital advertising, including ads on YouTube, banner ads on websites, and Facebook ads.

Within four days, though, the NRA had returned in force, increasing its advertising aggressively on Facebook, and spending so widely and indiscriminately that its ads on YouTube showed up on videos for school-age kids. According to a previously unpublished review by Pathmatics, a company that scrapes data from online ads, the NRA spent more than 6 times as much on digital ads after the Parkland shooting than it did in the weeks before it. Its average daily spend in the 24 days before Parkland was $11,300, according to Pathmatics. In the 24 days after its silent period, that average jumped to $47,300.

Nearly all of the increase was on social media, primarily Facebook, where the NRA took its spending from an average of $4,400 a day in the three weeks prior to Parkland to $34,000 a day in the three weeks after the silence. Florida was heavily targeted in the post-tragedy ad burst. The state went from ninth most targeted in January to third between mid-February and mid-March.

The NRA didn’t change its message – the ads were the same as before the shooting. The message was just pushed much harder. For the past year, the NRA had been ranked No. 706 by Pathmatics on its list of top YouTube video advertisers. In the period since Feb. 21, the gun-rights group jumped into the top 100 at No. 92.

In its sudden rush to counteract widespread criticism, which will reach a crescendo in Saturday’s national March For Our Lives anti-gun protest, the NRA appears to have aimed its marketing messages rather carelessly. Pathmatics found NRA membership-drive ads like this one running on a YouTube channel for grade schoolers called Kids’ Toys. The NRA did not respond to a request for comment.

Not every player in the gun industry pursued the same strategy as the NRA. Savage Arms, a firearms manufacturer based in Westfield, Massachusetts. whose ad spending Pathmatics also tracked, stopped nearly all of its online ad spending in the wake of the Parkland murders, and has kept a lid on it ever since. Says Gabriel Gottlieb, Pathmatics’ CEO, “From an advertising perspective, it’s interesting because this event energized the NRA’s base. But from the tone-deafness of the response, I’m very surprised.”

Going dark after a gun-related tragedy is a common tactic for the NRA, and a practice that seems to have started around time of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on December 2012. After the October 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas that left 59 people dead, the NRA delayed a $32,000 political ad purchase for 10 days.

But the NRA’s radio silence would almost always end once the public’s clamoring for stricter gun control laws inevitably died down, says Michael Franz, a professor of government and legal affairs at Bowdoin College in Maine. Franz co-directs the Wesleyan Media Project, which has tracked the NRA’s television and radio advertising. “This one is a little different because you have more sustained discussion.”

Franz says he finds it bizarre that the NRA would advertise to kids on toy video channels – but it could be as simple as the organization aiming its spending at the most popular YouTube channels to spread its message about membership. “It suggests that they’re buying ad time based off of presumed reach as opposed to audience,” he says. “We shouldn’t infer too much sophistication on the part of their outreach strategy.”

Case in point, one of the YouTube channels where the advertisements have been running is called Kid’s Toys, which has video playlists of kids unboxing toys and dolls. Pathmatics found an NRA ad running before a video of a young girl unboxing a doll from Disney’s popular “Doc McStuffins” show. According to Pathmatics, these ads were not targeted necessarily to gun owners. Anyone of any age could have seen them. The objectives appear to be to drive membership, as Pathmatics’s data show the ad material was created before the shooting. YouTube wasn’t the only youthful site displaying NRA material: Pathmatics’ data show there was an NRA display ad on comicbook.com, a site that covers comics, gaming and anime.

The Federal Communications Commission has long enforced strict rules about how network and cable television channels can advertise to kids. But few, if any, of those rules are in force with online video ads. In 2015, 10 consumer watchdog groups filed a joint complaint with the Federal Trade Commission over the YouTube Kids app, alleging that the app allows deceptive marketing to parents based on inappropriate videos. That complaint centered on advertising within YouTube videos themselves – not the pre-roll ads or ads on the side, which have even less oversight. Research into children’s media consumption has shown that small children have difficulty differentiating between advertising and regular content.

As the primary gun market of white males continues to age, the NRA has been reaching out to kids and teens. In 2016, the Violence Policy Center released a study documenting ongoing efforts by the gun industry and gun lobby to market guns to children, including advertisements, catalog copy, and a youth-oriented gun publication called Junior Shooters.

Digital ads are generally more flexible and responsive to events in the news than traditional television or radio ads, says Franz. The Wesleyan Media Project released a study last week showing that references to guns in political ads has been increasing since 2012. “The NRA seems to be doing something a little differently with its digital outreach,” says Franz. “Digital content is easier – and faster — to produce.”

There hasn’t been much research comparing the ways that kids and adults respond to online advertisements, but efforts to reach children are ramping up. The kids digital advertising market is expected to hit $1.2 billion and represent 28 percent of all advertising directed at kids, according to a report by accounting firm PwC.

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