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Tina Casey headshot

When Boycotts Work: NRA Losing Grip As Students Rise Up, Business Partners Run Out

By Tina Casey

Through a generation of school shootings and thousands of other gun-enabled murders, the National Rifle Association has held the fort against gun safety legislation. Now the NRA edifice is finally beginning to crumble in the wake of 17 murders at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14.

So, why could this time be different? This time the victims are speaking up, and big business is -- finally -- backing them up.

Students stand up against NRA

One clear difference about the Parkland murders is that the victims themselves have stepped into the media spotlight and publicly forced legislators to account for their votes.

Their example has already sparked a national movement that has spread to other schools across the country and reinvigorated the efforts of existing gun control organizations.

That's a clear contrast with other school massacres, in which parents and other adults have taken the lead.

In that regard, the age group of the students is a critical factor. High school students are fully capable of speaking for themselves. They can speak with composure under pressure without assistance from parents or other adults. By high school, teenagers are also just a few years if not mere months away from voting age, a fact that some of the activists have hammered home.

Social media also comes into play. Online sharing is often criticized for its negative influence on teenage behavior. Nevertheless, social media has helped to cultivate a generation of media-savvy youth who are seamlessly comfortable sharing their daily lives with an invisible audience, articulating their thoughts and feelings in words and images, and pushing back with incisive, share-worthy answers when challenged.

Along those lines, shared experiences also may be an important factor. Students across the country have a clear sense of what their peers in Parkland are going through, either because they have been affected by gun violence, or they have practiced active shooter drills in their own schools. The simple fact that such drilling is even necessary indicates that adult policy makers have failed, and that change must come from the students themselves.

Among the other factors that have also come together this time, the simple weight of frustration is accumulating after years of adult neglect. In particular, federal legislators failed to act after the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre in 2012, and more recently the Pulse nighclub and Las Vegas concert massacres.

NRA on the rocks

Triple Pundit has been following the boycott movement since the 2016 presidential campaign, and one of the patterns to emerge is that boycotts are more likely to have an impact when they involve a good company on the decline.

That element of decline is evident in the National Rifle Association. It began in the 1870's as a bipartisan sporting and conservation organization with a broad civic mission. However, after a  "takeover" by new leadership the 1970's the NRA adopted a partisan political agenda and advocated aggressively for an extremist interpretation of Second Amendment rights.

Since the 1970's, the percentage of households owning guns has been dropping and researchers have noted that the NRA's membership is skewing significantly to the right. The result is that the organization has lost any real claim to reflect a broad consensus among Americans. From that perspective, the NRA brand is in decline.

That doesn't necessarily mean NRA membership has declined. Another part of the boycott pattern is that consumer boycotts rarely work, and that appears to be the case with the NRA. Despite (or perhaps because of) its extremist positions, the organization reportedly saw a spike in membership during the Obama administration.

With all this in mind, it stands to reason that the Parkland student activists have not been appealing directly to consumers -- that is, to gun owners -- to boycott the NRA.

Instead, their central message is aimed at legislators, and the main focus boils down to two words: we vote.

When boycotts work: NRA edition

That brings us to instances in which boycotts can be effective. With millions in advertising dollars and other bottom line impacts at stake, boycotted brands can be extremely vulnerable when they are targeted by other businesses.

The high profile #GrabYourWallet and Sleeping Giants campaigns demonstrate how activists have learned to put force behind their boycotts, by pressuring companies into withdrawing their business from the targeted company.

In the context of the corporate social responsibility movement, companies are also more alert to potential "brand risk," and they may act even before consumer activists call them out by name.

In the case of the NRA, the stakes are especially high because today's high school students are not only on the cusp of joining the electorate, they are also at the starting line of the 18-34 year old marketing demographic.

That age bracket has lost some of its luster but it is still sought after by advertisers, and for good reason. High school students are beginning to enter into transactions -- credit cards, airline travel, car rentals and more -- that could impact brand loyalty for a lifetime.

In short, the student activists don't necessarily have to call out advertisers by name in order to exert considerable pressure against companies doing business with the NRA. Media and advocacy organizations have taken up much of the calling-out role (additionally, at least one student activist has called for students to boycott of spring break in Florida).

A Quinnipiac poll released on Februrary 20 underscores the importance of demographics. Though just a single poll, it does indicate the potential for risk in continuing a relationship with the NRA. Question 44 asks this:

Do you think that the NRA, or National Rifle Association, supports policies that are good for the U.S. or supports policies that are bad for the U.S.?

The overall result wasn't especially cheery news for the NRA. Only 38% answered "good" while 51% answered "bad."

The breakdown by age is even worse. The NRA fared poorly across all age brackets and it fared especially badly in the 18-34 group, with only 26% answering "good."

This time is different, part 1

Just a few years ago CSR was perceived as a "feel good" public relations strategy, but evidence is mounting that responsiveness to social issues is one of the hallmarks of a well managed company.

In that regard, take a look back just one year ago, when FedEx garnered a slew of negative publicity for discounting gun deliveries in Florida for NRA members.

Rather than dropping its NRA relationship, FedEx chose to ride out the storm. That may have been a reasonable strategic decision at the time, considering how quickly gun issues fade from the media spotlight. In hindsight, though, it appears that FedEx lost an important opportunity to take a leadership role after the Parkland murders.

Other companies have been quick to step into the vanguard. Among the first to cut ties was the First National Bank of Omaha, which announced that it will no longer issue Visa cards through NRA membership. This is an especially interesting development because the company publicly credited "customer feedback" for its decision.

Rental car companies including Enterprise, Hertz and Avis quickly followed suit, as did the car buying service TrueCar, the airlines United and Delta, and the cybersecurity companies SimpliSafe and Symantec. Symantec markets the popular anti-virus software Norton among other products and it was offering NRA members a discount on its LifeLock identity theft system.

The Wyndham Rewards program of Wyndham Hotels has also cut ties, and BBC news cites MetLife Insurance, Allied Van Lines and northAmerican Van Lines among other companies following suit.

The insurance angle is especially fraught when it comes to liability for gun related injury and death. In another interesting development, Insurance Journal reports that the company Chubb made the decision to withdraw from its NRA partnership several months ago. According to the report, Chubb has no comment but the decision does coincide with a consumer action at the time:

One gun control lobbying organization, Guns Down America, said that last November it petitioned Chubb to stop selling what it called “murder insurance” in cooperation with the the NRA.

Activists are also putting pressure on Amazon to drop its streaming service for NRA television, but the company has weathered boycotts in the past and so far it has shown no signs of backing down.

This time is different, part 2

NRA is not the only brand at risk. Accumulated fallout from gun violence is also rippling out to damage its primary stakeholders in the weapons manufacturing industry.

The Florida Retirement System, for example, is beginning to face questions over its holdings in gun manufacturing companies including American Outdoor Brands (formerly Smith & Wesson), maker of the AR-15 assault rifle used in the February 14 massacre.

The CSR-savvy investment firm BlackRock has also put gun manufacturers and distributors on notice that it wants to discuss their response to "recent events." Companies listed in BlackRock's index-linked funds include Sturm Ruger and Vista Outdoor as well as American Outdoor Brands.

The pushback is coming at a bad time for the US gun industry, which saw gun sales take a nosedive after President Obama filled out his term in office.

Remington, Federal Premium, SilencerCo and Daniel Defense announced layoffs last year, and early this year Ruger added its name to the layoff list.

Photo (cropped): John Roig/flickr.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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