Publicist Tony Makris speaks at a press conference given by Charlton Heston… (STEWART COOK/AFP/GETTY…)
“Are the president’s kids more important than yours?” the deep and dramatic-sounding voice intoned. “Then why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools when his kids are protected by armed guards at their school?”
When the National Rifle Association aired its 35-second TV spot last month, suggesting that President Obama has a double standard on school security and seemingly using his daughters as props, the White House quickly labeled it “repugnant and cowardly.” But the commercial was another in a long line of bare-knuckled NRA advertisements, many of them controversial but also compelling attacks that have come to define the organization.
Decade after decade, these provocative broadsides have been a product of one of the longest collaborations in the history of advertising, and they have all originated from the same advertising and public relations agency, Oklahoma City-based Ackerman McQueen, and its subsidiary in Alexandria, the Mercury Group.
Ackerman McQueen has managed the NRA’s image and helped fight its political wars for more than 30 years. The ad agency played a pivotal role in its transformation from a sportsman’s group to one of Washington’s most powerful lobbying organizations, shaping a message rooted in uncompromising combativeness, securing its influence inside the NRA and reaping millions of dollars in contracts.
The agency’s mission has perhaps never been more important than it is now. With the issue of gun control thrust back into the public spotlight by the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., and Obama’s repeated pleas for Congress to act on new regulations in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday night, the NRA is under attack again.
As it has in other times of crisis for the organization, Ackerman McQueen is scripting a counteroffensive.
“They are very effective at what they do,” said Warren Cassidy, a former executive vice president of the NRA. “They have refined a message that is able to strike hard.”
In addition to honing an unyielding public message, Ackerman McQueen has fought in the NRA’s sometimes pitched internal turf battles, pollinated the group with its own people and earned tens of millions of dollars for its services, according to public records and former NRA executives.
The agency has been instrumental in the rise of Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice president. The unprepossessing and introverted LaPierre was transformed into the bespoke and unyielding face of the group under the tutelage of Ackerman McQueen, said Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist.
“Wayne LaPierre couldn’t have given a speech 25 years ago to save his life,” Feldman said. “Now he gives a very effective speech to the NRA membership. It’s a testament to how effective Ackerman McQueen is. And it’s a testament that education works.”
Angus McQueen, the chief executive officer of Ackerman McQueen, declined an interview request for this article. The Mercury Group and the NRA did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
But interviews with former NRA members and others, coupled with public records, provide an account of how a single ad agency, far from Madison Avenue, parlayed its skills and no-holds-barred attitude to significantly influence the national debate over gun control.
‘An awful lot of control’
For a firm that continues to handle mostly local accounts — the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau, for example — Ackerman McQueen has had an unlikely, lucrative and sometimes bumpy ride in its role as a go-to bruiser in the national debate about guns.
When Harlon Carter, the executive vice president of the NRA in the early 1980s, decided to hire an outside ad agency, the organization settled on Ackerman McQueen because some of the competing New York-based firms “didn’t know which end of the gun the bullet came out of,” according to a biography of Ray Ackerman, a co-founder of the Oklahoma firm.
Ackerman McQueen made its mark quickly. To bolster its brand, the NRA had been considering a campaign around ordinary citizens holding their favorite guns, with the tag line “I am the gun lobby.” For some in the group, however, the idea of describing the organization as a lobby, a term associated with Washington, was unsettling.
Ackerman McQueen proposed using celebrities and a less politically charged catchphrase: “I am the NRA.” The idea was that the group was diverse and that its members didn’t reflect Americans’ stereotypical ideas of gun owners.
“It got a lot of attention,” said John Aquilino, a former director of public affairs for the NRA’s lobbying arm. “Just like any ad agency, they schmoozed with the client, making sure the client wouldn’t switch. They were in.”