The gunmaker Bushmaster's muscular ad campaign, which allowed visitors to earn a so-called "Man Card" by answering a battery of cheeky questions -- Can you fix a flat? Which best represents your inner light: a kitten, a tea candle or an assault weapon? -- lived quietly online for years.
Now unearthed and roundly criticized in the aftermath of last week's shooting rampage in Newtown, Conn. -- in which 20 children and six adults were gunned down by an assailant armed with, among other weapons, a military-style Bushmaster AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, owned by his mother -- the company's "Man Card" campaign has vanished.
Visitors to its former web address are greeted with a "Directory Listing Denied" message.
Representatives of Bushmaster, its parent company the Freedom Group and Cerberus Capital Management, the private equity firm that recently decided to sell its majority stake in Freedom, did not respond to repeated requests for a comment. But the apparently hasty removal of the "Man Card" online campaign would seem to highlight the delicate line that gun makers and distributors walk when marketing a product that, while nominally designed for military, law enforcement or sporting use, is also occasionally used as a tool for mass murder.
That sensitivity, in fact, has largely kept gun marketing well outside the pages and television screens of mainstream consumer media.
But gun industry watchdogs suggest that manufacturers and retailers have compensated for the lack of mass-media advertising access by aggressively selling to its existing customer base -- in part by stoking interest in newer military-style weaponry. The "Man Card" campaign, along with clearly branded appearances of commercially available assault-style weaponry in video games and other digital outlets, also suggests that gunmakers and distributors are finding ways to reach new customers -- particularly young men and boys.
"They've saturated their market, so they're trying to sell a guy his sixth, seventh, eighth gun," said Tom Diaz, a gun control advocate and a senior policy analyst with the nonprofit Violence Policy Center. "And to do that you have to try to convince him that he needs to carry a gun 24 hours a day, or that he needs to prepare for a war with his government."
Not everyone agrees. Robert Farago, a gun-rights supporter and the founder and publisher of The Truth About Guns, a web site that aims to explore "the ethics, morality, business, politics, culture, technology, practice, strategy, dangers and fun of guns," says that America's traditional affinity for guns is simply entering a new phase -- one that goes beyond your father's hunting rifle.
"This isn't all about wannabe mercenaries," Farago said. "Some people are getting into guns through that, sure. But the tradition of hunting and gun ownership in America is trans-generational.
"It's part of the cultural landscape," he added.
To be sure, gun ownership in the United States is subject to rapid upticks and downslides, but over the broadest view of the data, the share of the population reporting having a gun at home has been in a very shallow decline for some time. Households reporting having at least one gun, according to the polling firm Gallup, peaked in 1994 at 51 percent. The lowest ebb, 34 percent, came in 1999.
Today, that percentage is about 45 percent, but the larger implication is that, outside of their military and law enforcement markets, gunmakers have faced a stubborn upper-limit on their potential consumer base. And while the Federal Trade Commission currently has no broad rules governing gun advertising, most major newspaper and broadcast outlets explicitly limit or flat-out refuse gun advertising.
The New York Times, for example, does not accept advertisements for firearms or ammunition sold by mail-order, online or at gun shows, nor any advertisements for handguns, according to a company spokeswoman -- though it will accept ads for retail rifle sales, or for antique guns sold at auction or retail. A spokeswoman for The Washington Post simply said: "We have very tight restrictions on gun advertising and as a general matter we do not take these sorts of ads."
Earlier this year, Google officially banned advertising of guns, ammunition and related accessories from its popular shopping service.
Repeated queries to an assortment of gun manufacturers, as well as the the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the main trade association for the firearm industry, were not returned. But past efforts to bring handguns and rifles into new markets -- particularly through mass media channels -- have typically been met with stiff resistance and bad publicity for everyone involved.
One example: an ad for a Colt semi-automatic pistol, appearing in Ladies' Home Journal in the early 1990s, depicted a mother tucking her child into bed with a dark, open window in the background and photos of two semi-automatic handguns superimposed nearby. "Self-protection is more than your right," the text overlay declared. "It's your responsibility."
A handgun, the pitch continued, is not unlike a fire extinguisher. "It may be better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it."
This and similar ad campaigns mounted in the 1980s and early 1990s generated a flurry of petitions to the FTC by gun control advocates, who leveled charges of false or misleading claims at gun manufacturers.
While the FTC did not, in the end, take action on those petitions, the resulting fracas was enough to cause the industry to back away from such ads. But this left the gun and ammunition manufacturing industry -- estimated to be comprised of roughly 300 companies with combined annual revenues in the neighborhood of $7 billion -- very much dependent on marketing additional guns to existing customers through familiar channels: hunting magazines, gun-and-ammo titles and community newspapers or local television stations in areas where gun ownership is already common.
Military-style equipment, Diaz said, quickly became the new flavor of the day.
He points by way of evidence to a recent item posted to The Shooting Wire, an online sport shooting industry Web site. "If you're a company with a strong line of high-capacity pistols and AR-style rifles, you're doing land-office business," wrote Jim Shepherd, the site's publisher. "If you're heavily dependent on hunting, you are hurting."
The rise of the Internet has allowed some gun and ammunition manufacturers to sidestep informal advertising bans -- and groom a younger audience. One bullet maker, for instance, now markets its Zombie Max line of ammunition via a theatrical and thoroughly ghoulish YouTube video. Gun manufacturers have also established a presence at the video sharing site.
But according to Farago, founder of The Truth About Guns, the rise of first-person, warfare-centric video games has proved the most natural and fertile territory for the industry to tap and nudge new interest in its merchandise. Titles like the popular "Call of Duty" series, Farago said, are luring new gun enthusiasts to real-world shooting ranges where they seek out opportunities to fire the same high-powered, military-style weaponry that they encounter in video games -- often under very specific brand names.
"Video games are the most effective advertisements there are for firearms," he said.
Steve Johnson, editor of The Firearm Blog has cataloged some of the many real-world guns that appear in the Activision game "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3" -- often with familiar name brands like Remington clearly printed on the body of the guns.
When the game debuted last year, it grossed $1 billion in sales in just 16 days, according to the company.
Several gaming sites have also noted that firearm product placement in other games, including "Medal of Honor: Warfighter" from Electronic Arts, is common.
Just how these placements come about is unclear. Multiple calls and email messages to Electronic Arts were not returned. Queries to Activision were referred to an outside spokeswoman, Cassandra Bujarski, who said on both Tuesday and Wednesday that no one from the company was available to field questions on the gun branding in its games, or whether the company was concerned about suggestions that their game is creating a market and enthusiasm among young people for high-powered weaponry.
Bujarski did suggest, however, that as with clothing manufacturers and other companies whose products appear in modern video games, game companies typically pay licensing fees to the product trademark owners. Paid product placements by product manufacturers are uncommon.
She could not elaborate on why Activision would pay to depict specific brands and models of real-world guns. Remington did not return calls or emails.
Press reports, meanwhile, have suggested that the Connecticut shooter, Adam Lanza, was a "Call of Duty" enthusiast, prompting new calls on Capitol Hill Wednesday for investigation into the effects of video games on children.
Whatever the outcome of that effort, the most effective advertising for the firearms industry may well be demands for new gun control measures in the aftermath of last week's massacre. Several states are reporting record gun sales -- particularly for military-style assault weapons like that used in Newtown.