Uncle Sam Ups Ante For Recruiting Effort

Between the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and a wave of retirements set to begin in just three years, ad spending on federal job recruitment is on the rise and Uncle Sam, like other marketers, is employing increasingly sophisticated tactics.

Take the U.S. Army, which uses a promotional online video game, “America’s Army,” as a recruitment tool. In the game, the combatant takes on a black-garbed enemy and, at times, other online players dressed as U.S. soldiers, preparing players for the risks of what appears to be friendly fire.

This approach is just one way in which the Department of Defense has marshaled its growing marketing budget in its effort to attract new recruits. Under George W. Bush, the Pentagon so far has spent more than $700 million on advertising, per TNS Media Intelligence/CMR, versus $650 million during Clinton’s second term.

This increase reflects a general trend within the federal government, whose total ad spend jumped from $160 million in 1993 to a projected $600 million this year. In fact, Uncle Sam is now a larger marketer than Unilever and, as the No. 34 U.S. advertiser in 2003, just behind McDonald’s. Federal ad spending peaked at $680 million in the boom year of 2000, but underwent a recessionary decline in 2001. So far this year, concern about a ballooning deficit hasn’t stemmed the flow.

“There’s been a huge increase in contracts let through the Government Services Administration,” said Linda Dove, svp of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. Dove monitors federal clients, many of which retain agencies through the GSA’s standardized procurement process.

The larger spenders—such as the Marines and the Army—would also like their budgets to rise. “The economy is improving, college is a gold standard, there’s a war on—it makes for a challenging environment,” said Maj. David Griesmer of the Marines. The Marines spent about $13 million on ads in 2003; the total marketing budget is around $50 million, Griesmer said. “We’ve remained consistently low, consistently under-funded,” he added.

Paul Boyce, a rep for the Army, doesn’t expect spending to decline. “The armed forces are considered a high priority right now,” he said. The Army spent $75 million last year and, like other marketers, is moving away from print and TV to focus on other avenues, such as event sponsorships with Nascar and the online America’s Army game.

In the civilian departments, lots of little ad accounts have bloomed in the last decade. In Clinton’s first term, there were 215 separate ad campaigns recorded by CMR. Under Bush, there have been 323. “There are a lot of those accounts out there … that I think will make a significant increase in the amount of money being spent on government advertising,” said the 4A’s Dove.

One of these smaller accounts is for the U.S. Agency for International Development, which just assigned “a meager amount” to a redesign of its logo, currently a line drawing of a handshake, according to Len Johnson, president of JDG Communications in Falls Church, Va., which won the task. The new logo is intended to reproduce more cleanly on both rice bags and letterhead and to remind people that the food comes from the U.S. taxpayer and not via donations from “some churchgoer in Wisconsin,” which is the current impression, Johnson said.

The trend toward corporate-style marketing is also reflected at the Centers for Disease Control, which spent $30 million last year—mainly on its “Verb” anti-youth-obesity campaign. The CDC, which previously relied on PSAs, used longtime agency Saatchi & Saatchi and a raft of minority shops to spend the money. “We wanted to take the best that Madison Avenue had to offer and apply it to a public health program,” said CDC rep Bill Wood.

None of this would have happened as recently as 15 years ago, according to Johnson. “It used to be that anybody who came to a government client with a marketing brochure—you’d be tossed out” under the suspicion that you were wasting tax money on self-promotion, he explained. “Now the government client is a very sophisticated buyer of communications services.”