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In Media Terms, Think of the NRA as the New Scientology

By Published on .

Gun control: the cover of an actual novel by Scientology's founder.
Gun control: the cover of an actual novel by Scientology's founder. Credit: L. Ron Hubbard via Galazy Press

The ongoing backlash against the National Rifle Association, with big marketers including Best Western, Delta Airlines and MetLife breaking ties with the pro-gun group, is prompting some strange feelings of déjà vu.

The NRA may be a sui generis advocacy group, but the way the media narrative surrounding it has suddenly flipped has some eerie parallels if you look to other fields. Namely, entertainment and religion.

The familiar "flip" here is basically: Seemingly all-powerful group, unstoppable for decades, is suddenly, possibly, no longer all-powerful.

We saw this in the entertainment world when, last fall, The New York Times and The New Yorker published exposés of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. Though he was long the subject of appalled whispers, no one dared speak out because he wielded so much control. He appeared to possess limitless industry power; many Hollywood stars owe him their careers. But Weinstein also wielded impressive media power. We know now, thanks to further reporting by the Times and The New Yorker, that he basically ran his studio as something of a self-protection racket, manipulating media levers to silence and discredit critics.

Weinstein's sinister mastery of the media-industrial complex, and the sudden shattering of the impenetrable force field he built around himself, actually has another parallel that's connected, by design, to the entertainment world: the Church of Scientology. For years, the group, which was founded by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard and famously counts Hollywood figures such as Tom Cruise among its ranks, was astonishingly effective at protecting itself: It worked relentlessly to quash negative coverage and silence potential dissenters.

Like Weinstein, the Church of Scientology knew how to strike fear into critics—until, one day, it started losing some of that power. Journalistic exposés started it, but the real damage was done from within: by projects out of the entertainment-industrial complex that the church is so cozy with. In 2015, for instance, HBO showed "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief," an explosive Alex Gibney documentary based on Lawrence Wright's book "Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief." And in 2016, Hearst and Disney's A&E started airing "Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath," a harrowing docuseries from the actress and former Scientologist.

A group called Scientologists Taking Action Against Discrimination (STAND) tried to get big brands to boycott the show, an effort that fizzled as it became a ratings and critical hit, and took home an Emmy Award—Hollywood's way of saying, "Not only is it now OK for you to challenge Scientology, but we'll reward you for it."

Which brings us full circle to the current talk of #BoycottTheNRA—and the two dozen big companies that have severed ties with the group. Mostly that involves things like ending discounts to NRA members, of which there are 5 million—which sounds like a lot, until you consider that a Quinnipiac University Poll released last month revealed, "American voters support stricter gun laws 66 to 31 percent, the highest level of support ever measured." And support for a nationwide ban on assault weapons is now 67 to 29 percent.

The NRA, of course, opposes any such thing. For NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, the realization that the group's own force field may be faltering is causing him to lash out. After the Parkland school shooting, he declared, "As usual, the opportunists wasted not one second to exploit tragedy for political gain. The elites do not care one whit about America's school system and schoolchildren."

Multimillionaire LaPierre lashing out at the elites is, of course, vaguely amusing. Increasingly, gun owners have to be realizing that the NRA represents their interests less than those of gun manufacturers, as a HuffPost guest editorial recently argued.

Keep in mind that that Quinnipiac poll also reveals that a record number of gun owners—50 percent—now support stricter gun laws. More and more, the NRA seems to be aligned in the popular imagination with extreme gun fetishists and other assorted loons—like the members of that Pennsylvania church, the World Peace and Unification Sanctuary, who held a bizarre "gun commitment ceremony" last week complete with AR-15 rifles and crowns made of bullets, photos of which burned up the web.

When seemingly invincible powers suddenly hit a brick wall, we find out what they're made of. As the armor dents and starts to fail, core values are laid bare. When confronted with dissent and criticism, the common pattern across Weinstein, the Church of Scientology and now the NRA—all masters of self-protection, above all else—is to react with demagoguery.

And all the glaring chinks in the armor make everyone wake up to the possibility of real weakness and vulnerability behind the fearsome facade.

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