On August 24, US Fish and Wildlife Service agents — armed US Fish and Wildlife Service — executed a raid on a business suspected of importing illegal materials. That business was the iconic Gibson guitar. The suspected crime? Using illegally harvested hardwoods.
But in a twist, Gibson's plight has been picked up on by the increasingly vocal smaller-government movement of the conservative right. Gibson, these activists say, is a prime example of government overreach and business-strangling regulation, and at all levels from grass roots activists to top leaders in Congress, "Gibson" has become a call to battle.
And yes, there will be a rally.
"Please join us and lend your support on Saturday Oct 8 from 2-4PM in the parking lot of the Scoreboard Restaurant in the Opryland area of Nashvill " reads the homepage of the "Rally to Support Gibson." The event, sponsored by a laundry list of Tea Party organizations from Mississippi to North Jersey, will feature special musical and political guests, including "Chairman" Amy Kramer of the political action committee Tea Party Express and "Congressman" Marsha Blackburn.
Gibson is even directly involved in the event, with Gibson Chairman and CEO Henry Juszkiewicz billed as a special guest. The rally appearance will come three days after the CEO meets with U.S. Fish & Wildlife to discuss the ongoing investigation. In September, the CEO was the special guest of House Speaker John Boehner during the president's new jobs bill speech.
Authorities say they are investigating the possibility that Gibson violated the Lacey Act by failing to declare some of the wood materials used in its production process. It's something the brand has been suspected of in the past — in 2009, the federal agency (which addresses guitars on its permits FAQ) conducted a smaller such raid looking for rainforest ebony from Madagascar. No charges were filed and a lawsuit over the materials is ongoing.
In a much-passed around blog post titled "Why I'm standing with Gibson Guitar," one Tea Party activist wrote:
"The Declaration of Independence declares the purpose of government is to secure the people’s rights. It used to do so with laws to punish those violating the rights of others. Sadly, today government is often the one violating our rights via regulations which criminalize behavior tomorrow which is perfectly legal today. That’s what happened on August 24th and so I stand with Gibson!"
The tea party activists turning a martyr into Gibson have been joined by larger, more organized elements of the far right conservative old guard as well. Seeing the same lesson about government overregulation, The Heritage Foundation declared its support for Gibson in no uncertain terms:
"The result is an ever-expanding discretion for prosecutors – who now can pick a target for an investigation and then scour the statutes for a suitable crime with which to charge him. As Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s head of the dreaded secret police said proudly, 'Show me the man and I’ll find you the crime.'"
The rally's Facebook page pulls even fewer punches:
"Because if we remain silent then the next violation of our freedoms will be a little easier to commit and the next even easier until they become routine. When the government routinely abuses its power without reaction from the citizens then freedom is doomed. PLEASE join us as We Stand with Gibson because we MUST stand with Gibson."
Left-leaning media and environmentalists, meanwhile, have little sympathy for Gibson's plight. Despite the brand's insistence that it is being harassed, liberal publication Mother Jones reported that "other guitar makers and groups like the Hardwood Federation (the country's largest forest product association) and the National Hardwood Lumber Association (the industry trade group) pushed back on Gibson's claims in a conference call with reporters. They argued that the Lacey Act has actually been beneficial for American companies, while putting in place standards to prevent illegal logging."
A few months ago, it would have been impossible to image something as all-American as the Gibson guitar brand becoming an icon in the sewer of America's increasingly politicized culture. But brands are finding that nobody is safe and unwanted controversy can come at any moment. Worse yet, attempts to manage one's PR often seem impossible. A perfect example is ESPN's new Hank Williams Jr. headache.
On Monday, ESPN yanked Monday Night Football's longtime show opener Hank Williams Jr. after the musician went on Fox News and compared a recent Barack Obama golf outing to Hitler and called the president "the enemy." ESPN acted in an attempt to deflect outrage (and association) from those who found Williams' statements absurdly offensive. But the sports entertainment brand found itself with a whole new backlash headache as conservative groups, many the same as those involved with Gibson, criticized ESPN for caving, declaring they would "Stand with Hank."
The takeaway lesson for brands attempting to navigate this polarized marketplace is that the only way to assure avoiding controversy is to pull the shades and never ever go outside.
Images via Gibson Rally Facebook page.