PR firms owned by holding company WPP lobbied the United States government on behalf of the National Rifle Association for years while its creative agencies simultaneously made and promoted ads advocating for stricter gun control laws, according to public records.
A report in The Guardian today brought the long-term relationship between WPP and the NRA to light. In a statement provided to Adweek, the holding company did not directly confirm its firms’ relationships with the NRA, but said it represents clients on both sides of political issues.
“Our subsidiary companies will not undertake work that is intended or designed to mislead, and they operate within national laws at all times,” said a WPP spokesperson. “In the U.S., our public affairs companies have representatives of both major parties among senior management, and work with clients from across the political spectrum.”
WPP creative agencies including Grey, Ogilvy and Y&R have made very high-profile pro-bono campaigns designed to educate Americans regarding the risks of gun ownership and, in some cases, calling for specific policies that would make owning certain types of firearms or related products more difficult.
For example, this April Ogilvy created a campaign for a group called Americans for Responsible Solutions that advocated for more background checks on would-be gun buyers. The agency promoted the group, which was founded by former congresswoman Gabby Giffords and her husband after she was the victim of a 2011 shooting, with bulletproof signs reading “This poster stops bullets because our gun laws don’t.”
Yet as recently as 2009, the NRA retained Ogilvy Government Relations in an official lobbying capacity, paying the group $360,000 for its services that year. These numbers come from OpenSecrets, a website established by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics to share publicly available information tracking the influence of lobbying on American elections and party politics.
In 2015, Grey New York produced “The Gun Shop,” an interactive campaign designed to counter the perception that owning a gun makes one’s home safer by opening a fictional gun store in the middle of New York City and providing would-be customers with the violent histories of each firearm. The campaign went on to win gold Lions in the Design, Promo & Activation, Branded Content & Entertainment and PR categories at that year’s Cannes Lions festival.
But records show that a second WPP-owned firm, Prime Policy Group, was for years retained as a registered lobbying organization working on behalf of the NRA. As recently as 2016, that firm—which is a division of the larger public relations group Burson-Marsteller—received $40,000 for those specific services. PPG is one of many such organizations retained by the NRA to lobby Senators and House representatives in the interest of preventing the passage of the very sorts of laws promoted in the Ogilvy project mentioned above.
While Prime Policy Group has not registered to lobby for the NRA this year, it does retain an ongoing contract with the organization in a strategic advisory capacity, according to a party with direct knowledge of the matter.
Additional gun control projects by WPP agencies include Grey New York’s 2013 effort for States United to Prevent Gun Violence, the group behind “The Gun Shop,” depicting an office shooting by a disgruntled employee armed with an old-style musket. The same year, Y&R created a radio campaign for advocacy group Moms Demand Action, which was founded in the wake of the 2012 Newtown school shooting.
After that shooting, two pieces of legislation—the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013 and a bipartisan amendment that would have required background checks for private firearm sales—failed to pass Congress due, in part, to the efforts of the NRA and its assorted lobbying partners.
Prime Policy Group has not responded to requests for comment regarding its ongoing relationship with the organization. A Grey spokesperson declined to comment, and Ogilvy’s PR department had not yet responded at the time this story was published.
Oklahoma City’s Ackerman McQueen has been the NRA’s primary PR and advertising agency for more than 30 years, and it is responsible for most of the group’s campaigns.
According to the latest numbers from Kantar Media CMAG, the NRA ran approximately 23,700 ads in the United States in 2016, with its estimated paid media budget running to $28.4 million.