This Ad, Beautiful Yet Ghastly, Has a Novel Idea for Curbing Gun Violence

Are graphic warning labels a way to educate?

Bullets fall like human bodies, domino-style, in this simple yet powerful PSA that advocates taking a fresh approach to the nation's gun violence epidemic.

Developed by Droga5 New York creative directors Oriel Davis-Lyons and Gustavo Dorietto as a passion project apart from the agency, the 30-second spot asks if warning labels—similar to those on tobacco products—might prove a cost-effective way of educating consumers about the risks of purchasing firearms. To drive that point home, the labels would include graphic images of shooting victims. (While cigarette warnings remain pretty tame in the U.S., they often veer into upsetting visual territory overseas.) 

Note: The ad features disturbing imagery, as does the campaign's website: 
Don't Look Away

As the PSA unfolds, rows of bullets, hundreds of them, continue to fall, accompanied by soundbites that chronicle the impact of gun-related crime. At the end, we see a package of ammunition emblazoned with the heartbreaking photo of a shooting casualty, along with this message: "In homes where domestic violence occurs, a gun increases the risk of women being killed by 5 times."

Released ahead of National Gun Violence Awareness Day on June 7, the ad urges folks to visit graphicwarnings.com for more information. 

The World Health Organization calls cigarette labels "'the most cost-effective tool for educating smokers and non-smokers ... about the health risks of tobacco use,'" according to the site. "We believe the same approach could work to educate gun owners about the dangers associated with gun ownership." 

Striving to stay apolitical (though clearly left leaning), the copy stresses the responsibility of those who purchase firearms to stay informed of all possible consequences. 

"A year ago, I went on the March for Our Lives, and I left feeling frustrated, upset, but most of all determined to do something," Davis-Lyons tells Muse. "The inspiration was the graphic labels on tobacco packaging that I knew from living overseas, and I knew how effective they have been. One day, I thought, 'What if we did that on ammunition boxes?' "

Produced by Method Studios and directed by Simon Burrill, the spot ultimately prompts users to tweet their congressional representatives about the idea. The initiative is backed by Doctors Demand Action, #ThisIsOurLane, Survivors Lead and Veterans for Gun Reform. 

"We wanted to present it in the most bipartisan way possible," says Davis-Lyons. "Using the falling bullets as a metaphor allows viewers the space to interpret it how they see fit. Then we made the choice to include brief moments of graphic imagery of gun violence, because ultimately we are saying to people, "You can't look away from this crisis any longer.' "

Sonic Union handled the music and sound, working with Oli Chang, who contributed the subtly unnerving piano score. Chang plans to release the cut on Spotify as part of an EP called Trigger Warnings. 

"When writing the main theme, I wanted to create a delicate anthem where the melody of the right hand pulled against the chords in the left," Chang says. "Rhythms are meant to dramatize the falling bullets as human, as the melody develops to further highlight the urgency." 

"Everything was done in VFX and was, of course, incredibly labor intensive," recalls Davis-Lyons. "But they [Method Studios] were so driven by the cause that they brought a level of craft and finish to the final film that we hadn't even been able to imagine." 

Would labeling ammo boxes in this fashion actually help curb gun violence? It's impossible to say for sure, but global smoking rates have dropped during in the era of warning labels. Adult smoking hit an all-time low of 14 percent in 2017, compared to more than 40 percent in the early 1960s, shortly before warnings began popping up on cigarette packs. Experts agree such labels helped fuel that trend, but other factors—such as anti-tobacco media campaigns, and the public's heightened interest in healthy living—also came into play.

Of late, we've seen several notable gun-violence appeals. These range from an artful PSA warning about 3-D printed handguns, to a spot with an 11-year-old girl schooling adults in active shooter protocols, and even live performances with a trumpet made of bullet casings.

While the warning-label push emphasizes personal responsibility, it's just as stirring as any of those efforts, packing visual elements that seem especially loaded. 

Are the campaign's creators concerned they're preaching to the choir?

"We often use guilt or humor or emotion to try and bridge the gap between the two sides—and it doesn't work," says Davis-Lyons. "We deliberately presented this in a neutral, bipartisan way that acknowledges the rights of gun owners. And the idea itself is not a gun control idea, it's about changing our attitudes to gun ownership. The next step is finding out if it could really work the same way it did for smoking—by educating gun owners about the risks and allowing them to make more informed decisions. To do that, we need proper research trials at a state level. The film is only the beginning of this campaign, and we have a lot more work to do to reach the people that need to hear this message."

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David Gianatasio
David Gianatasio is senior editor at Clio Awards.