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New data show the NRA increased online ad spending after shooting

Immediately after the horror of the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., 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 According to a previously unpublished review by Pathmatics, a company that scrapes data from online ads, the NRA spent more than 6 times as much on digital ads after the Parkland shooting than it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, Mass. 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 the 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."

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