(Bloomberg) -- For at least the past two years, Altria Group Inc., the corporate parent of such brands as Marlboro cigarettes and Skoal smokeless tobacco, joined hundreds of other businesses as exhibitors at the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting.
This year, as the NRA gathers in Dallas, Big Tobacco isn’t slated to be among the exhibitors. Altria officials didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment about why.
Also missing: Nikon Inc. The photographic-equipment company, which also makes rifle scopes, has been an exhibitor at previous NRA conventions. Nikon executives also didn’t respond to requests for comment; nor did the NRA.
It’s unclear why the two companies decided not to join almost 900 other businesses and organizations—most of them in the firearms industry—in the sprawling exhibit hall that’s part of every NRA annual gathering. But cached NRA web pages suggest that the gun-rights group was expecting both companies to be involved. What’s clear is that a number of companies have ended relationships with the NRA in the weeks since the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 students and staff members dead.
First National Bank of Omaha said it would not renew its contract with the NRA for co-branded credit cards. Delta Air Lines Inc. and United Airlines Inc. both ended discount programs for NRA members, as did rental-car companies Avis Budget Group, Hertz Corp. and Enterprise Holdings Inc.
Some companies that backed away from the NRA have seen political backlash. Georgia state lawmakers punished Delta by removing a tax break for jet fuel from pending legislation. Last month, NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer sent a letter to the organization’s members saying Yeti Coolers LLC, the maker of high-end sports coolers, had abruptly “declined to do business” with the NRA’s charitable arm “and refused to say why.” Some NRA members responded by blowing up their Yetis in videos posted to YouTube.
Yeti executives have taken issue with Hammer’s letter, saying the company merely canceled “a group of outdated discounting programs” and that it remains committed to gun rights. Yeti, which was an exhibitor at the 2017 NRA convention, doesn’t appear on a list of exhibitors for this year’s edition.
Neither do Camelbak or Bolle, both owned by outdoor sporting conglomerate Vista Outdoor Inc. Camelbak, which makes water bottles, and Bolle, which makes sunglasses and bicycle helmets, both exhibited at last year’s conference, according to an NRA website.
After the Parkland shooting, major retailers said they’d stop ordering products from Vista brands because the corporation—which also owns makers of ammunition and rifles—hadn’t sought out “common sense solutions” to prevent future mass shootings. Earlier this week, Vista said it wants to sell its gun business as part of a “strategic business transformation plan,” though it will continue to sell ammunition.
The NRA’s annual meeting, which is expected to draw 80,000 visitors to Dallas this weekend, can be an attractive venue for companies that want to reach a captive crowd of gun enthusiasts. An online list of exhibitors this year numbers more than 880—more than 10 percent higher than last year’s total.
Altria’s presence at previous NRA conferences is probably explained by “a fair degree of target market overlap between tobacco and firearms,” said Allen Adamson, co-founder of Metaforce, a market-strategy firm. At the same time, though, “they’re both very contentious businesses right now,” he said.
“It could be that they decided there’s just so much heat on these two categories that ‘Let’s just stay closer to our knitting, let’s not put two targets on our business,’” Adamson said. If that’s the case, “What they want to do is quietly slip away,” he said. “They certainly don’t want to announce it to their audience.”
Nikon had planned to exhibit 28 new products at the convention, according to a cached NRA web page from March 1. “Prepare to experience an all-new Nikon at NRA 2018 with a greatly expanded presence in the tactical shooting optics world,” says a description that appears on that now-inactive page. It also notes that Nikon would be in booth 7420 in the Dallas exhibit hall.
But a current floor plan of the exhibit hall shows that booth 7420 is now occupied by Blingsting, a Dallas company. Blingsting sells self-defense products, including heart-shaped, pink personal alarms, slimmed-down stun guns and designer pepper-spray cannisters that “are designed to keep girls safe and super-cute,” according to its website.
Earlier this year, Blingsting had been unable to get an exhibit space for the conference; there wasn’t any room, said Andi Attebery, one of the company’s owners. Not too long ago, though, she called the NRA back on a whim and learned that a booth had just opened up, she said. She was happy with the location, which she said is near some really big companies.
Another cached NRA web page from March 25 indicates that a company called Brand Champion Marketing had reserved Booth 96. A field intended to describe the display lists only Altria’s website: www.altria.com. Brand Champion’s president, Randy Barnes, didn’t respond to a request for comment. Brand Champion’s website lists smaller tobacco companies as clients, but not Altria.
Booth 96 in the exhibit hall now has a very different occupant: the Army Reserve Careers Division, Area 6, 12th Battalion. Army Sergeant 1st Class Joseph Brookshire says he’ll use the booth to advertise the career- and benefits-counseling services he offers to military veterans.
“I figure there must be tens of thousands of vets going, so it’s a place we wanted to be,” Brookshire said. Still, he wasn’t sure it would happen; the service doesn’t have a big budget and for a while, he wasn’t sure the NRA would find a booth for him.
Then, about two weeks ago, Brookshire said the organization offered a booth at what he called a very steep discount. “This is just a great opportunity for us, so we are really happy this all worked out,” he said.
(Michael R. Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, is a donor to groups that support gun control, including Everytown for Gun Safety.)
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.