A bulletproof backpack might save her life in a mass shooting.
A bulletproof backpack might save her life in a mass shooting. skynesher/gettyimage.com

Q13Fox reports that the retailers of bulletproof backpacks expect "a jump in sales" right after a mass shooting in a school. We can conclude from this grim admission that the speed with which these companies move their goods corresponds with the size of a mass shooting. (The most recent such shooting, which happened in the gun-friendly state of Florida, killed 17 people.) Q13Fox also reports that the business of bullet-resistant school supplies came into its own after the Sandy Hook shootings in 2012—a turning point in American history (the point at which mass shootings officially became a normal and accepted part of American life). One school in Florida is already selling ballistic armor to parents for $120. The parents are encouraged to place them in their child's backpack. The school's head of security told the Miami Herald that he would "rather be prepared for the worst than be stuck after saying ‘Wow, I wish we would’ve done that.’”

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The security guard lives in a post-Sandy Hook world. He is not saying something crazy. He is offering real advice. Bulletproofing your backpack is now a matter of life or death. To certain ears, however, this kind of talk certainly echoes those darkly funny fake ads in Paul Verhoeven's science fiction films of the 1980s and 1990s.

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About a year ago, Den of Geek, a UK-based website that covers cult movies, TV shows, and comics, devoted a post to those ads. It's called "The Use of Ads in RoboCop, Total Recall & Starship Troopers" (the first film was released in 1987, the second in 1990, and the third in 1997). Though they functioned as fantastic mirrors that exaggerated some trend or feature of American society in the 1980s and 1990s, they have not dated. They are as relevant now as they were back in the day. (RoboCop 2, directed by The Empire Strikes Back's Irvin Kershner, continued and in some cases improved this tradition of fake ads.)

Some ads were even prescient. They depicted a nightmare world that was too warped for the 1980s to take seriously but, after being flattened again and again by the passage of a form time that checks and rechecks "creative destruction" (the temporality of monopoly capitalism), the mirror is no longer distorted and now reflects our times precisely. No one would be at all surprised, for example, to hear the extreme language ("Get them before they get you," or "You crossed my line of death!") in the ad for the board game in RoboCop, "NUKE EM!," coming right out of Trump's mouth or appearing in his tweets. Another example is the ad "Sunblock 5000"—it's actually in RoboCop 2—which has a sylph woman applying on her scintillating skin a thick and ugly blue and green lotion to protect it from the ozone-less sky. This sad cream resembles the sad bulletproof backpacks of our times.

Sunblock 5000 and bulletproof backpacks are made one by the source of their absurdity. In both cases, we have the market providing a solution for an obvious market failure (or a huge social cost, an externality, from a very small or limited private benefit). The net result? The market does not have to change; it can continue manufacturing processes that pollute the environment (as with the case of the cream), or sell more and more powerful assault rifles (as with the case of the bulletproof backpacks or school supplies).