Inside a gunmaker’s publicity stunt over a rejected Super Bowl ad

REUTERS/Joshua Lott
An AR-15 style assault weapon is displayed at the 7th annual Border Security Expo in Phoenix, Arizona March 12, 2013.

A rapidly growing manufacturer of AR-15-style rifles tried to run an ad during the Super Bowl in 2014, knowing that the NFL typically does not allow gun commercials during its marquee event.

But Daniel Defense – the maker of the semiautomatic rifle used in the Uvalde school shooting – privately had in place a plan to generate publicity whether the ad aired or not, according to previously unreported court documents that shed light on the gunmaker’s marketing strategies.

If it aired, Daniel Defense’s top marketing executive planned to have people across the country complain about the company’s own ad to left-leaning media organizations, stirring controversy and generating coverage.

If the ad was rejected, records show, the executive had arranged for a prominent National Rifle Association commentator to release a prerecorded online video accusing the National Football League of censorship and hypocrisy.

“I had two plans, you know,” Daniel Defense’s former marketing director, Jordan Hunter, a former Marine, said during a May 2015 deposition in a trademark infringement case. “That’s from the Marine Corps days, two plans. If it goes bad, you have another.”

An examination of Daniel Defense’s marketing, based on court filings, interviews, internal documents and other records, shows how the gunmaker over the past decade devised publicity stunts, paid for favorable coverage in newsstand magazines and employed other aggressive tactics to entice Americans to buy its AR-style semiautomatic rifles.

Daniel Defense’s fortunes rose in parallel with the popularity of the guns known as AR-15s. The weapons, sometimes referred to as “America’s rifle,” are beloved by many gun enthusiasts but are seen by gun-control advocates as an instrument of carnage.

The marketing strategies of Daniel Defense and other gun manufacturers have come under increased scrutiny in recent months amid deadly mass shootings by gunmen using AR-style rifles in Buffalo, Uvalde, Texas, and Highland Park, Illinois.

The CEOs of Daniel Defense, Smith & Wesson and Sturm, Ruger & Co. have been called to testify before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday, part of the panel’s investigation into the sales and marketing of AR-style semiautomatic rifles. And earlier this month, Everytown for Gun Safety, a group that promotes gun control, asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Daniel Defense’s marketing, arguing that federal and state laws prohibit advertising that promotes the unsafe or illegal use of dangerous products.

Daniel Defense did not respond to multiple requests from The Washington Post for comment. The company said in a statement shortly after the school shooting in Uvalde that it was “saddened by the tragic events” and intended to cooperate with investigators. The company has not commented on the FTC complaint.

Hunter, who worked at the firm from 2011 to 2015, did not respond to requests for comment.

Hunter’s deposition was taken as part of a lawsuit that Daniel Defense filed against competitor Remington Arms that was later withdrawn by agreement of the parties.

The eventual rejection of the proposed Super Bowl commercial resulted in “by far” the most successful marketing effort in the company’s history, Hunter said during the deposition. “Nothing’s even close,” he said.

The online commentator’s video fiercely criticizing the NFL went viral, and the story about the banned Super Bowl ad reached tens of millions of people after it was featured on Fox News’s signature programs, such as “The Sean Hannity Show” and “The Five,” Hunter recounted in the deposition.

Within Daniel Defense, the publicity generated by the rejected Super Bowl ad was seen as a marketing coup that the owners sought to replicate, according to Thomas Carlson, who led the manufacturer’s marketing and communications from 2015 to 2017 and reported to Cindy Daniel, co-owner with her husband and CEO Marty Daniel.

“Cindy was always trying to figure out that kind of thing – what kind of PR stunt can we do to get a little more notoriety,” he told The Post.

Another key element of the company’s marketing strategy, he added, was to use images of military and tactical units holding Daniel Defense rifles. The AR-style rifles closely resemble their military counterparts, though the military version allows the shooter to fire more than one round with each pull of the trigger.

“A lot of people are like, ‘Our armed forces use that. That’s cool. I want that,'” Carlson said.

‘Two ways to go with this’

Formed in 2001 by Marty Daniel, a former garage-door salesman, Daniel Defense began as a military contractor using the bureaucratic slogan “small arms product solutions.” As recently as 2012, 80% of its sales were to the military, Hunter said in the deposition. The company sold the Department of Defense gun components, according to federal contracting records.

But Hunter said the company shifted its focus to civilians as America’s wars in the Middle East wound down. That period coincided with a backlash against the Obama administration’s gun-control plans after a 20-year-old man used an AR-style rifle in a December 2012 massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.

“The rhetoric starts flying about, you know, guns and Second Amendment rights and things like that, that’s going to cause consumers to take action,” Hunter said in the deposition.

Using slogans such as “Protecting Your Freedom,” the firm shifted its marketing toward self-defense and personal liberty. It published “Torture Test” videos of its guns being hit with bullets, bombed and run over to prove their toughness in rugged combat conditions.

In what Hunter described in his deposition as the firm’s “most effective” ad campaign, troops were shown carrying rifles made with Daniel Defense components, under the heading “Use What They Use.”

“Use what operators are using,” Hunter said. “You have the right to own that kind of thing, too.”

More than 90% of the company’s sales were to civilians by the time Hunter sat for his deposition, he said.

By August 2013, the firm, already a major player in the AR-15 market, was projecting a massive surge in sales, according to internal documents obtained by The Post. An internal presentation that month showed the company projected its previous year’s sales revenue of $31.7 million would more than triple to $110 million by 2014.

Reflecting that confidence, the company decided it was prepared to spend up to $600,000 to promote its guns during what would become the most-watched television event in U.S. history, the 2014 Super Bowl, Hunter said during the deposition. It was a major step up from the company’s previous marketing efforts, which included running ads in magazines and on local television stations, as well as “online campaigns” and attendance at tradeshows, according to an internal document that described its 2012 marketing initiatives.

For the Super Bowl ad, Daniel Defense produced a commercial that featured a military veteran, the father of a newborn, looking over his family in a suburban home.

“I am responsible for their protection,” a narrator says in the ad. “And no one has the right to tell me how to defend them. So I’ve chosen the most effective tool for the job,” the narrator says, before the commercial flashes to the silhouette of a Daniel Defense rifle.

Daniel Defense wanted to run the ad in eight cities, including Atlanta, Dallas and Memphis, Hunter said. But he said he realized the NFL might not allow it.

“I had two ways to go with this,” he recalled.

“The A plan was to run this thing and then I had people in each one of these cities that were going to – I had 15 different media groups that were left-leaning – and they were going to notify . . . that this thing aired, and we were going to get some press out of it.”

Hunter did not identify the people or media groups.

Plan B, he said, involved getting the editor of a trade publication, Guns & Ammo magazine, to agree in advance to publish the commercial online if it was rejected for the Super Bowl. The editor, Eric Poole, did not respond to a request for comment.

Additionally, Hunter said, he “kind of manipulated the situation” by having “a guy named Colion Noir, who is an NRA commentator and internet guy, kind of put his spin on, or his take on, what he thought his opinion was on this thing.”

The NRA had recruited Noir, a gun enthusiast and internet personality, in 2013 to appear in NRA News videos. Noir also has a YouTube channel with more than 2 million subscribers.

Neither Noir nor the NRA responded to requests for comment.

It’s not clear whether the NRA, which is not mentioned in the video, was involved in the video’s production. But NRA News separately published an eight-minute video about the rejected ad featuring an interview with Marty Daniel and titled “NFL’s Bad Call.”

Even among gunmakers, Daniel Defense stands out for its strong support of the NRA. The company is frequently a headline sponsor of NRA events, and the NRA has described the relationship as a “united front.”

Daniel Defense bought NRA memberships for all of its employees, the NRA said in 2017, and chartered buses to take them all to the NRA’s annual convention. That year, the NRA awarded Daniel Defense’s V7 rifle its “gun of the year” title – a first for an AR-style rifle.

During the deposition, Hunter said he believed the decision to reject the commercial did not come from the NFL, but rather from Fox, the channel broadcasting the Super Bowl.

“I actually had the Fox sales rep saying, ‘You know . . . the NFL will not allow this to air.’ And, in fact, I think it was Fox that killed it.”

An NFL spokesman at the time said the league had no involvement in rejecting the commercial, although he acknowledged its policy prohibited gun ads. “This is a completely bogus story,” Brian McCarthy, the NFL’s vice president of communications, told CBS Sports, referring to the controversy over the rejected ad.

As soon as Hunter received an email formally rejecting the ad, he said he forwarded it to Poole.

“He went and ran with the story,” Hunter said. Noir, he added, “had his video already ready and prepped.”

Noir published the Daniel Defense commercial along with his prerecorded commentary about the NFL on his YouTube channel on Dec. 1, 2013.

“All because a couple of jackasses do something bad with a gun, and the NFL thinks it has a gun problem,” Noir says in the video.

Hunter said in the deposition that the video took off instantly.

“And the thing just went and spun out and then it’s – a couple of hours later it’s on Drudge,” he said, referring to the popular online news site Drudge Report.

Appearing on Fox News to discuss the rejected commercial on Dec. 3, 2013, Marty Daniel urged viewers: “Call the NFL and tell them, ‘C’mon man! Run my ad!'”

That same day, Daniel Defense filed applications to trademark “C’mon man!” and “C’mon man! Run my ad!” for use on T-shirts, baseball caps and other clothing, according to U.S. Patent and Trademark Office records.

Videos of news segments about the supposed NFL ban ricocheted all over the internet, Hunter said during the deposition.

“It was the number one video on ‘The Five,’ the ‘Hannity Show’ and a couple other of those big-name Fox shows,” he said. Citing figures from Fox, he said videos about the ban were watched 20 million times in 10 days.

Hunter said he parted ways with Daniel Defense in March 2015, a few months after he said Cindy Daniel assumed control of the company’s marketing, because the firm determined he “wasn’t a good fit for her team any longer.” He went on to work for other gun manufacturers and now runs his own marketing firm, according to his LinkedIn page.

Boosting its profile

In the years since the Super Bowl stunt, Daniel Defense has rapidly expanded and increased production. It went from making 2,413 rifles in 2010 to 29,180 in 2020, according to annual data published by Shooting Industry magazine, climbing 23 places in the publication’s ranking of American long-gun producers to No. 18.

Hunter described the company’s target demographic as largely White, conservative men ages 35 to 55.

That audience is in line with the typical gun owner of today, according to a closely held 2020 study conducted by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearm industry’s trade association, and shared with gun manufacturers. The Post obtained a copy.

“Protection for themselves and others at and away from home is the top motivation for purchasing a firearm,” the study said of the average buyer.

The study found that a demographic it termed “Urban Defenders” – the most likely to buy guns because they “do not trust others around them” – was the fastest growing segment and bought guns at a higher rate than any other in 2020.

Daniel Defense has appealed to such anxieties in its print marketing, using the image of a man in pajamas poised with a rifle and recommending its guns “whether you’re on the battlefield . . . or protecting your family in the middle of the night.”

The company stresses on its website that its sales comply with the law and that it does not ship specific weapons to states where they are banned.

In addition to placing traditional advertisements, the company has also cultivated favorable coverage in the gun press, using an array of tactics to boost the profile of its firearms and garner favorable reviews, according to a review of its marketing activities.

During his deposition, Hunter said the company paid to shape the content, design and even the paper quality of Daniel Defense-focused editions of a specialty AR-15 magazine published three or four times a year by InterMedia Outdoors, then the publisher of Guns & Ammo. There were at least three such editions, all in the years around the Super Bowl ad, each labeled “Daniel Defense edition” on its cover, according to images available online.

“I would then handpick the editor I wanted, handpick the writers that I wanted working with that editor, make a list of all the products I wanted covered,” Hunter said, adding that he had overseen the rewriting of articles and had a hand “in each and every part” of the publication.

A Daniel Defense marketing document said it used the AR-15 magazine, placed on newsstands, to reach “the Average Joe.”

A 108-page Daniel Defense edition of the magazine from 2014, a copy of which was reviewed by The Post, did not contain any explicit disclosure about the company’s involvement. The names of Hunter and other Daniel Defense staff members appeared beside the regular editorial staff on the magazine’s masthead, under a Daniel Defense logo.

Poole, the Guns & Ammo editor who, according to Hunter, was also engaged for the Super Bowl stunt, contributed a six-page feature to the magazine on Daniel Defense’s $3,000 integrally suppressed rifle (ISR). “If you’re engaging a violent intruder from across the room in your house, you’re not going to miss with the ISR for lack of performance,” he wrote.

InterMedia was bought by new owners in November 2014 and renamed Outdoor Sportsman Group, which did not respond to a request for comment.

Daniel Defense has also worked to generate excitement for new weapons by hosting select writers at special launch events. In 2018, it put on a waterborne assault course for writers, driving them around a lake at high speed while they fired a new Daniel Defense rifle at targets, according to accounts published by Guns magazine.

The next year, it unveiled its Delta 5 rifle at an event for writers that Guns magazine said was held at “a secret location” in Georgia. “Marty Daniel stood up in a lakeside cabin, sunlight illuminating him so perfectly I was sure a special-effects crew was stationed outside, and hoisted the Delta 5,” the magazine’s cover story said.

Brent Wheat, the editor of Guns, told The Post that the events did not secure favorable press for Daniel Defense. “Our general editorial philosophy is ‘good guns get coverage,'” Wheat said in an email.

In May 2018, Daniel Defense opened a new 300,000-square-foot headquarters and factory in Ellabell, Ga., more than doubling its previous space. Marty Daniel forecast that the new building would help the company triple its revenue.

While the company’s finances are private, the growth has been a boon for Daniel. In a 2018 video interview, he summarized his goal using a quote he attributed to the retail pioneer J.C. Penney. “I keep shoveling money toward God and he keeps shoveling it back, and his shovel’s a lot bigger than my shovel,” said Daniel.