Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

Have you noticed that just about everything that happens in our culture nowadays somehow relates to Survivor? The show has become more than a monster TV hit, more than a national sensation. It’s the experiential template against which all kinds of phenomena are measured. One begins to get the creepy feeling that rather than reality TV borrowing from reality, it’s the other way around.

Recently, I felt the reality-TV metaphor looming when, at the behest of Leo Burnett’s Generation Y-ready ad campaign for the U.S. Army, I visited goarmy.com.

The campaign slogan, “An Army of one,” manages to put the “self” back into “selfless service,” but it’s on the Web that inimitable oneness can be elaborated. Here, on this ambitious if somewhat dysfunctional site, the Army remakes itself as—I’m sorry, I can’t help it—Survivor.

Goarmy.com has got everything that makes reality TV tick: “real people” contestants, physical challenges, claustrophobic living quarters, the threat of elimination and a closed environment from which there is no escape.

Everything, that is, but the million-dollar prize at the end. Visiting the site reminds me of a column I wrote at the beginning of the Army review, suggesting that to make itself hipper, the military branch might consider a new name: thearmy.com. But I was just kidding.

Now you can watch as real soldiers go through real basic training! See them horse around on their free time! Check out the interactive map of Fort Jackson, the Army’s own Australian outback! And by all means, apply to become a contestant: A recruiter is only a click away. I did encounter a little problem in my quest for a voyeuristic military thrill, however. I couldn’t get goarmy.com to work.

I clicked to hear Ever (we’re all on a first-name basis in the Army) talk about his hopes and fears of basic training; instead, I got a window telling me I didn’t have the necessary plug-in. I do, but I updated just in case. That made no difference. Then I checked out videos on other sites to see if my plug-in was working. It was. Next, I switched from my Mac to a PC and tried goarmy.com again—same result. An e-mail to technical support had no effect.

Whatever the problem is, I just hope it’s no reflection of our nation’s combat readiness. But even without access to the multimedia bells and whistles on the site, one gets the idea. On view is an impeccably diverse selection of enlistees and reservists offering their personal experiences. Most are carefully canned to promote different key images of the new empowering Army.

There’s Ben Smith, who is white and enlisted because he wants a career at the Pentagon; Ever Ochoa-Bonilla, who wonders in both Spanish and English what it’s going to feel like to take orders for the first time in his life; and African American Richard Jones, who wants to set an example for his younger siblings. As Survivor producer Mark Burnett will tell you, the key to good reality TV is casting.

In the future, we are promised ads that will introduce problems or dilemmas that soldiers face; viewers will then be invited to go to the Web site and offer solutions.

Yes, I do understand this is all about attracting and interacting with recruitment prospects. Still, recasting the U.S. military as epinions.com may be one gesture too many toward individual empowerment to be believed. After all, we’re talking about battle operations here, not writing book reviews on Amazon.com or voting for the People’s Choice awards.

It would be great if this marketing campaign were honest when it claims Army life helps individuals become better versions of themselves, offers them a lot of career choices and plenty to do in their free time to boot. But the dissonance between the self-enriching values of the Consumer Republic the Army claims as its own and the inevitable demands of military life keeps intruding.

Although the ads and the Web site use real recruits doing real things, an old episode of Combat has more gritty authenticity. (All that gorgeous, arty photography doesn’t help, either.) And if the goal is boosting recruitment, one wonders whether the money it takes to buy time on Friends wouldn’t be better spent on a big fat military pay raise.

Not that I blame the Army and its ad agency for trying. I suspect the noted war theorist Carl von Clausewitz would agree that no army can be better than its soldiers.

The same goes for an army marketing campaign.