The Greatest Pleasure?

By Neil Beltran

“WARNING!” a website for duck calls announces, as heavy

metal music blares in the background: “We are not responsible for the

massive carnage that could be imposed on the waterfowl population

after the use of these calls.”

This site is not alone in the use of jagged-edge verbiage; nowadays hunting magazines and hunting-related product websites offer up lots of Charlie Manson-esque lingo. When I first started hunting, later in life than most, hearing “whack ’em and stack ’em” and “if it flies, it dies” made me wince. Those phrases seemed more suited to callous market hunters and poachers than to sportsmen who claimed to love the whistling of duck wings in the dark and the rich sunrises that followed. It made no sense.

Today of course, those slogans are tame. Every season brings more products promising to super-size my ability to annihilate, massacre, and assassinate my prey, to make them rue the day they flew over my blind or strolled beneath my tree stand.  But despite a deep and vigorous passion for hunting, and many days of coming back from the water or woods empty-handed, I can’t seem to conjure up any ill will or anger towards the animals I pursue. In fact, it’s the opposite. I love them. I’m amazed by them sometimes and outwitted by them often. And I respect them, alive or dead. Even when an advertiser tells me to “Exact Your Revenge” with their rifle scope, or a network pushes me to watch a show to hear “Wild hogs squeal for mercy,” I’m pretty sure I’m not in it for those things. Advertisers and TV show promoters must think otherwise, but I just don’t FEEL like a serial killer.

“Seasons Change, and So Did I . . .”

“…You need not wonder why,” The Guess Who go on to advise in the 1969 hit. But I can’t help but wonder. I’ve always thought of hunting as the noblest past-time, even before I came fully into it. It conjured up images of prehistoric men and mammoths. Daniel Boone’s wilderness acumen and Teddy Roosevelt’s vision of the hunter-poet-conservationist. A pipe-smoking Ward Cleaver type in black and red wool jacket, a made-in-America rifle from Sears in his hands. A 10-year-old me with my BB gun, stalking varmints in the creek behind my urban house.

Editorially speaking, the shows and magazines still try to pay homage to the clean, clear sense of adventure, respect for animals and conservation, and family fun that hunting was known for in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. So why are so many marketers, who presumably know their audience’s demographics pretty well and can even anticipate trends now and then, on a completely different page? When did hunting go from “The Greastest Pleasure,” as one old Field & Stream advertiser called it back in the day, to blood-splattered, Helter Skelter? What’s changed? Why is the language of hunting morphing?

The New Demographics

Has the typical hunter changed? Maybe, at least in terms of age. We tend to be older. That should mean some carryover of traditional approaches and attitudes, you know, old school. But perhaps we’re a different kind of older, one that feels stressed, compressed and more financially depressed than grandpa in his old plaid coat or canvas waders. We have less free time — rather than being retired or looking forward to it, we’re working extra hours or two jobs to make ends meet, knowing that 70 is the new 65. Hunting costs more, for the basics as well as for a truckload of gear and gadgets we feel we need to compete with others in the fewer, farther, and more crowded places we can hunt. Gas takes a bigger chunk out of our personal GDPs than prior generations, let alone double what it cost a few short years ago. Maybe all this pressure has some of us kicking the dog. Well, maybe not the dog, he’s got retrieving to do. So are marketers thinking we’re feeling a need to kick the deer instead? Did some pop consumer psychologist tell them that this older generation, many of whom came of age during the protest 60s and self-absorbed me generation 70s, didn’t get enough rubber ducky as a child and thus has a deep-seated need to thrash every real one that flies by? Or that carnage is a substitute for lack of carnal, due to a bad prostate? Ridiculous? Yeah, but marketers wouldn’t be treating us like psycho killers if it wasn’t working. So it must be resonating somehow.

The other demographic shift is a good one. While we aren’t replenishing our numbers with young hunters at the hoped for rate, we do seem to be adding women. The Daily Beast reported that in 2011, there was a 28.5 % increase in the number of women buying guns for hunting. Brands of women’s hunting apparel are springing up. In my own experience at public refuges in California over the past 10 years, I’ve seen the presence of women hunters at the morning check-in gathering go from zero to more than a dozen. But that raises more questions and answers none when it comes to why there’s a shift toward blood-thirstier phraseology. Shouldn’t the presence of women in the sport, and a desire to add more, lead to kinder, gentler language? Shouldn’t marketers be talking about how hunting empowers, how it can bring a family closer and provide more indelible memories than a whoom-zoom day at Disneyland? Or do they think any woman who wants to hunt MUST be a grrrl. Someone who wants to take her deadly feminist revenge on males – or at least other species served up as whipping boys. Not the women hunters I know. I wonder if recruiting women hunters would be easier if hunting’s marketed image were more like it was mid-century.

Death from Above

Or is this death-from-above commando imagery that’s coming from marketers simply a knee jerk reaction, because we’re at war? Remember when you used to see someone in public in camo? It was like spotting an old friend. No introductions, no formalities. “What d’ya hunt?” was the first thing said and the conversation after that flowed easily. Now the camo-clad are soccer moms, petulant teens, fashionistas, and PETA members. That’s not really home front support for the troops. It’s just a sign that war permeates.

So maybe marketers figure we need a little Fallujah with our firearms advertising? There certainly is a big push to get military-style rifles onto the deer and varmint-hunter’s gun rack. (I enjoy shooting these guns, by the way, but there’s just something more “deer” about my Browning A-Bolt.) I know that war guns have become sporting guns before, but I don’t see that the language of war ever became the language of hunting during those past conflicts. Maybe they think the ones who aren’t serving want to play soldier?

Speaking of youth. It may also be that marketers trying to woo a younger hunter are simply using the language of video games. That’s probably appropriate, since most young hunters spend three months every year shooting at animals, and nine months shooting at zombies, aliens, cyborgs, and assorted barbarians. If the search-and-destroy themed hunting ads aren’t aimed at me, I get that. The problem is that I see them. And so do a lot of other people.

The Future of Hunting

Not that Ted Nugent is the best example, especially after swooping out of the sun in a chopper to hunt down pigs Apocalypse Now style, but “Uncle Ted” does make one very good point: we justify hunting in all kinds of technical ways to the non-hunting public — but don’t call hunting what it is — fun. And it does build character, self-reliance, family traditions, and soul-soothing, mind expanding experiences we’ll never get from a day spent on Facebook. Those are the selling messages I’d like to see in the hunting world. Of course, I will continue to enjoy hunting no matter what approach marketers take. But what about those “other” people, the ones who don’t hunt, the ones who – like it or not – have the future of hunting in their hands?

It’s been my experience that there are only one or two degrees of separation between hunters and non-hunters. Nearly every non-hunting friend, relative or neighbor I’ve talked to has fondly recalled their father’s or grandfather’s hunting stories. That they have a brother who hunts, or grew up where hunting was a big deal in their town. But as time goes by, that separation widens. Even now, when some aspect of hunting comes up for a vote, as it has in California with SB 1221, what is there to sway the debate in favor of hunting, against the power, money and lies of the Humane Society of the United States? The constituents of Ted Lieu, a state senator representing Torrance who sponsored the bill to end hunting bears and bobcats with dogs, probably don’t know too many hunters. They probably don’t notice the hypocrisy in Mr. Lieu’s position that it’s okay to hack the fins off sharks for soup, but not to pursue mammals with dogs (because one is his heritage, the other is ours). But they can look at the hunting world and see, not the positive outdoor experience depicted in ads of old, but rather a violent, vengeful, cruel, blood-thirsty obsession. Because that’s what a lot of the industry’s marketers are selling.

So a teenage video gamer somewhere buys a murderously-effective duck call. Meanwhile, a much, much larger audience of non-hunters and voters may be buying into something else: that the reverent, respectful hunter they may have known growing up is gone. And what stands in his place should be stopped, or at least left to wither and die.

[Author’s Note: Nothing I’ve written is meant to demean any product, magazine, or TV show specifically or generally. It’s the way some of them are communicating with us — and inadvertently, perhaps, with the non-hunting public, who happen to vote, that concerns me. And probably should concern you too.]

~ by SpeakingZenaphorically on September 20, 2012.

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