Publicis’ Disturbing Gun-Control Stunt Let People Shoot at Strangers, and Think They’d Killed Them

But what does this Russian campaign really prove?

To promote gun control, the creatives at Publicis Russia wanted to see what would happen if they put firearms in the hands of everyone. So, they made an online simulation that let anyone aim and shoot what they were told was a real gun at a courtyard full of people.

The agency let users take turns playing with the gun via a website. The people milling about on the screen were actors. If any of the remote snipers chose to pull the trigger, the actor in question would drop (on an operator’s cue), and the “gun”—actually just a special camera—would mark them with fake digital blood on viewers screens. Many of the users evidently believed, as intended, that they had just shot someone for real.

The actors would soon pop back up, resurrected from the dead, and a message would appear to the would-be killers and other audience members on the site. “Not everyone owns a gun responsibly,” it read, “but they’re still openly sold.”

A grand deception to prove a somewhat obvious point, the campaign’s case study emphasizes the difference between the stunt and a video game—a rather dubious surface-level distinction.

As hair-raising as the scenario might seem—and indeed, watching an innocent person stroll around casually, then suddenly fall with a bang, is disturbing—any half-intelligent adult would also surely recognize it must be staged. Many others would intuitively understand the whole point was to test if people would push the button, and might want to just to see what would happen next.

The case study also emphasizes the statistic that every 27th person out of 254 users—or nine people total—chose to shoot the gun. Thus, the campaign was later titled “Every 27th.”

Created for a hard-to-trace group that Publicis is billing as IEFGC, or Independent Enthusiasts For Gun Control, the campaign seems born in response to groan-inducing pro-gun rhetoric (including campaign-era red meat from now-president Donald Trump). In other words, its heart is in the right place, and Publicis is claiming victory by way of social media impressions.

As a way to raise awareness, it may have succeeded to some degree. But it also doesn’t prove much of anything new, and framing fairly straightforward marketing campaigns as statistical experiments with dramatic results doesn’t generally help their credibility.

The willful cleverness of the concept, meanwhile, along with its intricate execution, risks overshadowing its message. And contrary to its purpose, it may end up glamorizing the type of violence it’s trying to prevent—or for some deranged individual, even playing out a dark fantasy—by making reality seem a little too much like a video game.

@GabrielBeltrone Gabriel Beltrone is a frequent contributor to Adweek.