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Advertising Guns for Christmas

Guns for Christmas: Advertising in Boys’ Life Magazine, 1911-2012

American boys have received guns as Christmas presents for over a century.  This research explores how advertising in Boys’ Life magazine represented this special Christmas ritual through portrayals of suitable types and brands of guns, appropriate shooting activities, family gifting tableaux, fantasy consumption, and notions of masculinity.  Christmas gift-giving has been one path of socialization into the world of guns.

Witkowski, Terrence H. (2020), “Guns for Christmas: Advertising in Boys’ Life Magazine, 1911-2012,Journal of Macromarketing, 40 (3/September), forthcoming.

American gun culture can be broadly defined as what its people have thought, felt, and done with regard to firearms.  Gun culture has been structured socially through a variety of consumption and brand communities, such as hunters, target shooters, collectors, and more. Christmas gift-giving has enlisted boys into this culture by transmitting a distinctive set of social norms and an ideology understood by both the gift providers and their youthful recipients.  Continuities in this socialization process provided insight into why gun culture has been so durable in the U.S.

This article presents a brief history of Christmas guns from the turn of the twentieth century into the early twenty-first century.  The research documents and analyzes both the visual and textual content of Christmas-themed gun advertising and related commercial ephemera.  December issues of Boys’ Life from 1911 until 2012 served as the major primary data source.  An official publication of the Boy Scouts of America, Boys’ Life can be considered the magazine of record for twentieth-century American boyhood.  Advertising representations of Christmas gun gifting may not have been entirely accurate, but they have reflected a lot about American gun culture over a long period of time.  Indeed, gun advertising has been one of the forces driving this culture. This history contributes new insights into the myriad socialization processes that support and reproduce American gun culture and its constituent consumption and brand communities.  Advertising in Boys’ Life portrayed a limited range of shooting activities – some hunting, a bit more target shooting – and no mention was made of having guns for self-protection.  Save for one exception over 102 years, the characters in the ads, along with a few additional celebrity endorsers and fictional personalities, were all white.  The ads represented firearms and air guns as objects boys naturally desired and scripted Christmas gift-giving rituals for the intended audience.  Through a good part of the twentieth century, some ads unabashedly encouraged boys to petition their parents for gun gifts. Such appeals partially reversed gun culture socialization processes.  Rather than fathers passing on gun lore to their sons, the boys educated their dads.

Obviously, many other media conduits, such as movies, radio, and television programming, along with personal influences from friends, neighbors, and relatives, have assisted in this recruiting process, but manufacturer advertising of guns for Christmas would appear to have had an additional long-term impact.