Why a Military Contractor Needs to Advertise to the Average Consumer

Putting a value on a patriotic image

One day in 1937, engineer Hall L. Hibbard brushed the eraser dust off plans for the most innovative military aircraft in the world, the P-38. Test pilots marveled at the range, stability and handling of the plane, which “would fly like hell, fight like a wasp upstairs and land like a butterfly,” said one. That Lockheed had such a machine on the drafting boards at all was a miracle. The fighter was barely out of test when America entered World War II where the P-38 proved to be the most effective fighter in the Pacific.

That actually left Lockheed with a marketing problem. Up until the war, the manufacturer—which had always known how to make a sweet-looking plane—had been a consumer-facing brand. (Lockheed built the first pressurized passenger aircraft in 1934.) But war pulled the company into the anonymous realm of government contract work, a fact that raised a question as tricky in 1943 as it is now: Should a brand that makes war machines for the federal government advertise to everyday consumers—and if it does, what should it say?

The two ads here show how Lockheed has answered that question in the affirmative. “Overall, both ads are a PR play,” said Douglas Burdett, founder of the marketing agency Artillery, which serves the defense industry. “They’re not intended to make a sale, but more to keep a sale—and to maintain and build goodwill and general awareness.”

For over 70 years, then, Lockheed (today, Lockheed Martin) has seen value in reminding Americans that it’s fighting the good fight. The art, of course, lay in how it’s chosen its messaging. In 1943, anyone seeing this ad for the P-38 would have had a personal stake in the war—a son or brother fighting in it, or a defense plant job here at home. With Americans in a fighting mood, Lockheed needn’t have worried about peppering its copy with graphic terms like “vengeance,” “firepower” and “rip apart.” “Talk about fighting and killing was something you could get away with,” Burdett said. “Today, it would be too aggressive, especially with the F-35.”

Lockheed’s F-35 flies in turbulence. Everything about the plane is controversial, from its cost (about $133 million each) to its performance (the 12-year-old plane is still not combat ready). With 21st century America divided over the country’s global military role and Congress up in arms over the defense budget, Lockheed’s current ad might echo its 1943 counterpart, but the posture has changed. Gone are the fighting words, replaced by muddled euphemisms like “situational awareness” and “security challenges.” Burdett noted, “In World War II, they were proud of contributing to the war effort—today, it’s more of a defensive play.”

What, then, is the advantage of Lockheed’s consumer-centered advertising now? “One of the reasons is to reassure all stakeholders [read: the Pentagon] that they’ve made the right decision,” Burdett said. “And that the elected representatives should not be too quick to cut funding for the project.”

From damage infliction to damage control. Still, as always, Lockheed makes a sweet-looking plane.