Perspective: One Tough Sell

Trying to find the few, the proud

For those who rail against government spending on bridges to nowhere and $600 toilet seats, few things ruffle the feathers quite like the cash that the Department of Defense drops on recruitment advertising. So let’s just get this over with: This year the armed forces will spend $667.7 million on marketing. The examples of how this money gets spent are anything but drab. Tidbits: The military spent $100 million on sports sponsorships alone last year, including $3.9 million with the National Hot Rod Association. At one point, the National Guard dropped $26 million to put a sticker on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Nascar ride.

But enough of this. The bottom line is that the military needs recruits, and getting them means advertising. In fact, as the ads on these pages show, that’s been true for a long time now—be it the Army’s plea for men in 1951 or the Marines’ plea for women today. And it’s also been true for the same reason. Getting a stripling to sign away four years of his youth in exchange for low pay, a physical ordeal and a fair chance of being killed is not what you’d call an easy sales proposition. To accomplish that mission, Uncle Sam needs you, marketers of America.

But here’s where the roads diverge. Though recruiting has remained the same tough job, the advertising themes used to get it done have changed completely. In the case of these two ads, the most obvious thematic shift is the visible one. “The 1951 ad speaks to white men—and speaks about how service is a man’s business,” said Prof. Tom Reichert, who heads the advertising and PR department at the University of Georgia and has studied the efficacy of military advertising. “The contemporary ad is speaking to black women and de-emphasizing gender. No longer is it just a man’s job to secure the free world.”

True. And to attract any youth to the task of saving the free world these days requires a message far different from the one touted by the Army in 1951, when go-USA themes like “warming up the tanks in the gray light of another dawn” connected with a population that had staked a moral high ground as a result of winning WWII and liberating the world.

But those days are long gone. “The idea that you’re going to get an 18-year-old who thinks it’s his patriotic duty to go off and fight and die in Afghanistan doesn’t resonate anymore,” said Steve Cody, managing partner of the marketing communications firm Peppercorn and a member of the Army’s Civilian Public Affairs Committee at West Point. Cody points out that not only did 1973’s end of the draft shift more of the burden of recruiting to advertising, but the military has also come to realize that it’s competing with the private sector in its quest for quality inductees. The result is to shift the message from heart to mind, said Cody. “It’s now about leadership—the military as a place to learn leadership skills.”

In fact, Cody said, the military’s advertising has positioned itself not so much as an alternative to civilian employment, but as a training ground for it. “It’s saying you’ll be attractive to the private sector,” he added. “The military wants you, but in order to get you, it has to say it’ll help you get that corner office at GE.”

Where, chances are, they don’t warm up the tanks at dawn.

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