There’s nothing like controversial advertising to drum up buzz about a new business. Down Range has only been in business for six months, but the Chico, Calif., shooting range’s holiday ad campaign already has locals talking — for better or worse.
Displayed prominently on Chico’s Highway 99 near the shooting range is a billboard depicting Santa Claus holding an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle. The message next to him reads, “We build AR’s for Santa.”
While some Chico residents told the local NBC affiliate that they find the billboard humorous, others are bothered by the message a gun-toting Santa might send, especially to kids.
“I just don’t think I would like my son to see Santa holding a gun and having to explain to him that it’s not usually what Santa’s holding ... it’s presents,” Chico resident Brenna Main said.
“The idea of this symbol of joy and giving holding an assault rifle, it’s just so contradictory,” Tom Inhoff, another Chico resident, complained.
Yet Down Range owners Steve Dyke and Will Clark insist the ad isn’t meant to be offensive. Their business is guns, after all, and while some people get toys for Christmas, “some people get firearms,” Dyke said. “So when Santa needs help putting together an AR rifle, we can definitely help them out with that.”
The Down Range billboard joins a long list of controversial advertisements that have almost become a holiday tradition. It seems that every year there is at least one ad campaign that manages to offend someone.
Last week, Ralph Lauren removed a holiday 2014 ad campaign from its website featuring images of Native Americans clad in Western clothing. The photos appear to be from what’s known as the “assimilation era,” a dark period in American history spanning from the late 1800s into the 1940s, during which indigenous people were legally required become “Americanized” and abandon aspects of their own culture, including language, religion and dress. The Ralph Lauren images sparked major blowback and even a boycott on social media.
This week in colonial propaganda masquerading as history, we have Ralph Lauren with the genocide aesthetic pic.twitter.com/kQXGY8bd01— Frank Waln (@FrankWaln) December 17, 2014
“Ralph Lauren has a longstanding history in celebrating the rich history, importance and beauty of our country’s Native American heritage,” the company said in response to the outrage. “We recognize that some of the images depicted in the RRL look book may have caused offense and we have removed them for our site.”
Cosmetics brand Illamasqua found itself in a similar pool of culturally insensitive hot water in 2012 when it evoked historically racist imagery in its holiday ad. The ad, a diptych in which the same model is shown all in white, including her face — save for bright red lips — on one side and all in black on the other, drew significant criticism and accusations of racism on its Australian Facebook page. The U.K.-based makeup company initially removed the Facebook post, but it was quickly reinstated, along with an apology insisting that the advertisement was nothing more than a work of artistic expression.
“Obviously, it was never our intention to cause offense,” Illamasqua wrote.
While companies seem to be asking for trouble by appropriating sensitive racial or cultural imagery, others manage to cause a stir with even the most benign advertising. Take J.C. Penney’s 2012 Christmas ad featuring Ellen DeGeneres. The commercial, in which the popular talk show host and J.C. Penney spokeswoman is seen talking to a group of Santa’s elves, is inarguably innocuous. But One Million Moms, a watchdog group created by the fundamentalist Christian nonprofit American Family Association, didn’t see it that way. It wasn’t anything that was said in the ad but simply the presence of the openly gay DeGeneres that offended One Million Moms and prompted the group to launch a boycott against J.C. Penney.
The company didn’t budge, however, issuing a statement that it would stand by its spokeswoman.
Last winter, Kmart rolled out a trio of Holiday ads undoubtedly designed to provoke. While some took offense at the play on words used in ads titled “Ship My Pants” and “Big Gas Savings,” it was Kmart's “Show Your Joe” ad that really got people worked up. In the video, promoting Joe Boxer at Kmart, a row of handsome men wearing the top halves of tuxedos thrust their pelvises to play “Jingle Bells” with bells jingling underneath their holiday-themed boxer shorts.
As Mashable noted at the time, the “Show Your Joe” ad received by far the most “dislikes” on YouTube of the three, with commenters calling the ad “offensive” and “filth.” But it also conjured lots of attention, driving thousands of subscriptions to Kmart’s YouTube channel, and was shared many times over on social media. The commotion caused by the ad only attracted more media attention, driving even more viewers to the video.
Last December, Mashable wrote that it was too soon to tell whether the virality of the “Show Your Joe” video would translate to success in terms of Kmart’s Joe Boxer sales. Similarly, it remains to be seen whether Down Range’s billboard will increase holiday gun sales, but it has certainly gotten the people of Chico talking.