Mark Smith has credible 2A bona fides: He owns several Smith & Wesson 9 mm semiautomatic pistols. Every three months or so, he’s at the range, squeezing off several clips and truing up his aim. He’s taken gun-safety classes and has a concealed-carry permit. For Smith, firearms are about security.
“I’m protecting myself, protecting my team, protecting my customers,” said Smith, the owner of a five-branch franchise of Midas automobile repair shops in Richmond and its suburbs. That includes the global chain’s highest-grossing outlet, in westernmost Henrico County, with just under $5 million in annual sales.
His support of gun rights, notwithstanding, Smith worries firearms are falling into the wrong hands. Alarmed by deadly mass shootings across the country and continuing gun violence in the Richmond area, Smith — through his latest signature commercial combining policy and personality — wants his customers to do something about it.
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In a 30-second advertisement on radio and television, Smith urges a three-day waiting period for gun purchases, paired with more thorough background checks. He also calls for public pressure on Congress and the Virginia legislature to adopt tougher restrictions on firearms.
This is new ground for Smith. He has long practiced what is known as cause marketing. That is, elevating the profile of his business — and, ideally, its profitability — by tying it, for a broad audience, to public concerns and organizations that focus on them. For Smith, that includes blood services and regional and local feeding programs.
But in choosing to speak out on firearms, given the fury of the gun debate, Smith risked trouble. Some friends worried for his safety. In Virginia, where there were mass shootings in 2007 and 2019 and where polls show strong support for gun control, a shrill political fight continues over how access to firearms should be managed, if at all.
During their brief total control of Virginia government, Democrats won restrictions successfully resisted for years by Republicans. But with a GOP governor and his party within a single seat of taking back the General Assembly, Republicans make no secret of again minimizing limits on firearms.
And though Smith, in his commercial, urges relatively modest restrictions, that he is doing so in a region with more than 550,000 television households — Richmond is the nation’s 56th-largest broadcast market — means he can quickly generate kitchen-table chatter, some of it unwanted, on a provocative subject.
“It was not an un-thoughtful move,” said Mark Guld, the Raleigh, N.C., advertising and marketing consultant who has produced Smith’s commercials from the start more than 20 years ago. “This was a potentially contentious subject that we did not know whether … we should play or not.”
Not one to rely on data-driven market surveys, Smith followed his instincts. This son of an automobile industry executive and effusive fan of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” who has voted for both Democrats and Republicans, Smith said he pondered several days before deciding to go with the advertisement, which now having run several weeks, has been largely well-received.
At least that’s what anecdotal evidence shows.
Sharing a favorable comment Thursday that a customer posted on his LinkedIn page, Smith estimates that he’s heard — by phone, social media and in-person — from about 125 customers; that all but 12 approved of the commercial. Two told Smith to take it down, underscoring their distaste for it with a four-letter expletive.
And a solitary protester stood outside Smith’s shop on Broad Street, just west of the Richmond-Henrico line, holding a sign that urged performing an unnatural act on President Joseph Biden.
In the TV spot, the barrel-chested, bearded, bespectacled Smith — speaking to camera, much as he does in person: quickly, purposefully, allegro — says, “There comes a time to talk about things other than car care. That time is now.
“Gun violence — this is out of control. Texas, Buffalo, Southern California — these other shootings. These kids are under 21 and they have access to guns they shouldn’t have access to.”
Smith continues, “This is our community. We need to take care of it. Nothing changes until something changes. We need to be that change.”
About five seconds into the commercial, a streamer appears that — in black and red capital letters against a yellow field, reads, “I SUPPORT THE SECOND AMENDMENT AND OWN GUNS. I AM ADVOCATING FOR RESPONSIBLE AND ACCOUNTABLE GUN OWNERSHIP.”
As cause marketing that is character-driven, Smith’s shtick sticks out. It’s creating allies and adversaries.
Bill Hamby, who, with 35 years in television and public relations, has handled such disputed projects as the failed Walt Disney history theme park for Northern Virginia, commended the Smith commercial as “admirable” and “brave”; that it works because Smith — he shuns scripts, by the way — comes across as “likeable, believable, credible” everyman.
To Philip Van Cleave, the tireless lobbyist for the pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League, Smith is stepping over a line, alienating customers — actual and prospective — at the expense of others: “Businesses should try to be neutral. … They don’t want to cut out customer base in either direction.”
Van Cleave says he’ll suggest his members boycott Smith’s repair shops. Also, Van Cleave said, this could mean trouble for Midas at the corporate level should word of Smith’s advocacy spread beyond Virginia. At week’s end, Midas didn’t seem concerned, saying Smith’s views are his own.
“Midas recognizes its franchisees have the right of free speech and may communicate their opinions publicly,” said Midas’ Jonelle Compiani. “The opinion Mr. Smith expressed is his. It does not mean his views and opinions are expressed by Midas, constitute or imply an endorsement by Midas, or necessarily state or reflect those of Midas.”
That people are talking about the commercial — perhaps it’s more accurately described as an advertorial — is mission-accomplished for Smith.
He’s not only keeping it on the air, he’s planning to update it.
Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814 or [email protected]. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter, @RTDSchapiro. Listen to his analysis 7:45 a.m. and 5:45 p.m. Friday on Radio IQ, 89.7 FM in Richmond and 89.1 FM in Roanoke, and in Norfolk on WHRV, 89.5 FM.