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How to Pitch the Military When a War Drags On? by Timothy L O'Brien
New York Times, September 25, 2005
How to Pitch the Military When a War Drags On?
By TIMOTHY L. O'BRIEN
THE camera tracks a mother's field of vision as she hovers over a checkbook and a calculator lying on her kitchen table. She looks up as her daughter, a young African-American woman, sits down to speak with her.
"Look Mom, if I decide I still want to be a doctor when I get out, I'll have had four years experience as a nurse or an X-ray tech or an O.T. specialist working with real patients," the daughter says, speaking directly into the camera and into her mother's eyes. "That's why I want to enlist in the military; it'll be good for my career. What do you think? Mom?"
Block letters spelling out "Your Turn" rise across the daughter's face. But before the mother's response can be heard, the advertisement fades to white and displays the address of the Defense Department's military recruitment Web site. A no-nonsense voice-over then weighs in, offering advice to parents: "Make it a two-way conversation. Get the facts at todaysmilitary.com."
With the brutal realities of the ground war in Iraq contributing to a well-publicized drop-off in recruitment, the federal government will roll out a sophisticated and expansive marketing campaign on Oct. 17 that will rely on advertisements like this one to convince parents - mothers in particular - that military service remains a wise choice for their children.
"This is advertising that is designed not to look or feel like advertising at all," said Edward Boches, chief creative officer at Mullen, the agency in Wenham, Mass., that created the recruitment ads. "The one thing we felt we got parents to agree with was that if their children ask them questions about enlisting, they had an obligation to, one, engage, and then two, be informed."
The United States ended the draft and instituted an all-volunteer military in 1973, fulfilling President Richard M. Nixon's earlier campaign promise, made amid public protests against the Vietnam War. Ever since, the packaging and promotion of soldiering to those who might fight our wars has tapped all of the persuasive power that Madison Avenue can muster.
From overcoming antipathy toward the military during that time to embracing a rebirth of military prestige spawned by the lightning-strike victories of the Persian Gulf war of 1991, advertising agencies and the armed services have worked hand in hand to strike a chord with recruits: "Today's Army Wants to Join You." "Join the People Who've Joined the Army." "We're Looking for a Few Good Men." "Aim High." "It's Not Just a Job - It's an Adventure." "Be All That You Can Be."
The war in Iraq represents the latest watershed in the shaping of public perception of the military and military service. But as the government and ad agencies gear up their marketing machinery to stave off the recruitment shortfall and avoid possibly having to resurrect the draft, they are encountering a promotional hurdle: the perception that serving in the armed forces means more than merely coming in harm's way. Service, in the eyes of many potential recruits and their families, may mean death.
The armed forces have brought billions of dollars to bear on recruitment since the 1970's. Last year, the federal government ranked 25th in Advertising Age's annual rankings of the country's major marketers, spending about $1.2 billion - a large portion of which, analysts say, was related to the military. That put the government ahead of such big spenders as Microsoft, Wal-Mart and Gillette and in the same league as PepsiCo, Home Depot and Merck.
Among the four major branches of the military, the Army is currently the government's advertising heavyweight - and for good reason. Navy and Air Force recruits may not be as likely to face the potentially lethal uncertainties that ground fighting in Iraq entails. While the Marine Corps also puts its troops on the ground, military analysts say it recruits new enlistees in smaller numbers than the Army and faces fewer recruitment challenges because the corps prefers to field a young, agile force and therefore does not emphasize service as a career.
The Army has had the most difficulty of any of the services in finding recruits, even though its ad spending has almost doubled since 2000, to about $290 million this year, according to Army data. The Army is reviewing new advertising proposals from agencies and expects to spend at least $1 billion on marketing under a five-year contract that it plans to award sometime this winter. The Chicago agency Leo Burnett currently manages the Army ad campaign.
The Army is also courting "influencers" like parents, trying to reach them through ads and by sponsoring rodeos, all-star high school football games and Nascar races. And the Army is Web-savvy. Besides offering recruitment information, its Web site, , gives visitors realistic digital war games that they can download to personal computers.
"This is based on research, qualitative and quantitative, that we apply to all of the work that we do," said Col. Thomas Nickerson, the Army's advertising director, of its marketing campaign. "It truly is a business process using the best practices of corporate America to make an informed business decision."
Colonel Nickerson said that while the current "Army of One" message promotes personal success and does not emphasize the risks of war, the Army's Web site outlines dangers that recruits might face. Although the Web site of the Defense Department does not contain similar information, a department spokesman said in an e-mail message that "our new 'Get the Facts' campaign dictates the need for some acknowledgment of current military issues and will be available" on a revamped Web site to be unveiled as part of the marketing push on Oct. 17.
"Clearly, influencers want to know what the Army is going to do for their sons or daughters for life," Colonel Nickerson said. "They also want to know what the global war on terrorism will mean for their sons or daughters."
As Colonel Nickerson, his military counterparts and their advisers on Madison Avenue respond to those needs in coming months, their success in pitching their message will hinge on how much traction it has in a time of war.
"If we go into a draft this will be one of the biggest marketing failures ever, because it would mean the government, the military, the ad agencies and society had failed to provide a compelling rationale to serve," said Clarke L. Caywood, a public relations professor at Northwestern University and a Republican political consultant. "It would be saying that their whole message had failed, abjectly."
STERN as a billy goat and pointing directly at the viewer from the famous "I Want You" poster, James Montgomery Flagg's Uncle Sam was more than just one of the most effective recruiting devices ever concocted. It was also an appeal to patriotism and duty so compelling that its popularity seeped into the broader culture - and stayed there long after it first appeared as a magazine cover promoting World War I mobilization and celebrating Independence Day in July 1916.
Conceived at a time of uncertainty about America's role in the European war, "I Want You" offered icy, heroic resolve as an antidote to ambivalence and as an argument against pacifism. The poster attested to the marketing and propaganda power of the government and paved the way for the success of conscription under the Selective Service Act of 1917. It also helped create a climate that forestalled the type of draft riots that had accompanied the Civil War.
It was among a crop of posters and other advertisements that over the next decades also offered bravery and virtue - and, yes, even the acquisition of job skills - as reasons enough for strapping on combat boots. They were messages, say analysts and advertising gurus, that enjoyed relatively easy acceptance through the end of World War II in 1945 but began to encounter greater resistance during and after the Korean War.
The social upheaval during the Vietnam War and the end of the draft pushed the military into the arms of advertising agencies and their copywriters and art directors, a number of whom were military veterans themselves. The Army turned to N. W. Ayer, then one of Madison Avenue's biggest agencies, to help with the transition from "I Want You" toward messages that tried to make the military attractive to younger recruits in peacetime.
"The messages during the wars and during the draft era were different because the draft took care of personnel needs," said Fred Morris, an advertising executive who has overseen military accounts and whose New York firm, Cossette Post, manages the Coast Guard's ad campaign. "Back then, all the services needed to do was appeal to people's sense of obligation and patriotism."
The post-Vietnam ad campaigns included many marketing techniques that are still in use today: event sponsorships, outdoor billboards, direct mail and radio, television and print ads. Ayer coined the "Be All That You Can Be" slogan in 1981 and helped make the volunteer force more desirable by deploying aspirational pitches that emphasized educational enrichment and job training.
Joseph S. Nye Jr., an international relations professor at Harvard who served in the Clinton administration and has studied citizens' faith in government, said the military and the post office both enjoyed an increase in public trust during the late 1970's and the 1980's while almost all other government institutions were losing trust. He attributed the difference to great advertising.
Others agree. "It is one of the great unsung advertising successes of all time," said Doug Laughlin, 63, a former Army officer who is now president of Laughlin Marinaccio & Owens, an agency in Arlington, Va., that handles the Army's National Guard account. "By that, I don't mean that we put something over on America. What I mean is that literally hundreds of copywriters and ad executives accomplished something that in the early 70's just seemed impossible: that we could get rid of the draft and make an all-volunteer service attractive to Americans."
Mr. Laughlin, who has also managed Air Force ad accounts, said the Desert Storm campaign of 1991 "really put the military back in its proper place of respect" and helped propel the ad industry's efforts in the decade that followed. Then came 9/11 and Iraq, which "have reminded everyone that service men and women could die and that service was dangerous," he said.
"I think everyone in military advertising began to get more serious again," he added. "You're not painting this great picture of join up, spend two years, get your college paid for - it's far more serious."
The public still considers the military one of the most trusted American institutions, according to analysts and military surveys, despite mounting opposition to the war in Iraq, murky prospects for its outcome and the scandal surrounding the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
So the issue may not be trust, analysts say. Rather, potential recruits may be weighing the risks of serving versus the rewards. And for all the gravitas agencies are trying to instill in their military ads, the emotional strings they pluck continue to be self-improvement and professional advancement - with the exception of some battle-ready Marine Corps ads that celebrate its recruits as members of a distinct warrior class. ("The Few. The Proud.")
"The central message used to attract new recruits to the Marine Corps has not changed significantly since the inception of the all-volunteer force," Master Sgt. James Edwards, a spokesman for the Marines, said in an e-mail exchange. "Each tells the story of the grueling challenge one goes through to transform into a U.S. marine."
The Marines plan to spend about $67 million on marketing this year, up from about $46 million five years ago. The Navy, which once hired the film director Spike Lee to shoot its ads and has a campaign, "Accelerate Your Life," that emphasizes adventure and professional advancement, will spend about $100 million on marketing this year, up from $74 million in 2000. An Air Force campaign, "We've Been Waiting for You," calls on potential recruits to hone existing skills and develop aeronautical and technological talents that position them for unique careers. The Air Force will spend $56.8 million on marketing this year, down from $61.6 million five years ago.
Press officers for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps all said that the war in Iraq has not caused them to alter significantly the messages at the heart of their marketing campaigns. Colonel Nickerson of the Army said that he was not sure whether his organization was planning to change its "Army of One" message over the next several months, but that ad campaigns "are always evolving" and "have to respond to the needs and questions of prospects and influencers."
Influencers - that is, parents - have emerged as resistant gatekeepers, according to members of the armed forces and marketing analysts. A Navy spokesman said that a study conducted by the Campbell-Ewald advertising agency recently found that about 49 percent of mothers exposed to the Navy's message in mid-2003 were inclined to encourage military service to their children. By December of last year, the study showed that only 29 percent of mothers surveyed would do so.
Leo Burnett recently produced a series of gauzy, sentimental television ads for the Army that attempt to woo parents with the message that military life makes their children better people.
Military spokesmen and marketing analysts said that among all of the groups to whom the armed services reach out, Hispanic parents are among the most powerful of influencers. In fact, ethnic and class differences have cut across military recruitment and marketing for years.
Representative Charles B. Rangel, a New York Democrat who was decorated for his service in the Korean War, has pushed for reinstating the draft, arguing that volunteer service and the marketing that accompanies it unfairly ensnare society's most economically vulnerable members.
"There's no question in my mind that if we had a draft we would not be at war in Iraq, because affluent families would not want to put their kids at risk," Mr. Rangel said. "They're targeting poor white, black and Hispanic high-schoolers in urban and rural areas with these ads."
The Army, Mr. Rangel said, has helped foster racial integration and provide opportunities for African-Americans. But, he added, parents in his district, which is largely black and Hispanic, are "angry" that their children are exposed to recruitment pitches. "We've lost over 1,800 men and women; they're dead," he said. "People aren't stupid about taking this risk."
David R. Segal, a sociologist at the University of Maryland and an expert on military recruiting, takes issue with some of Mr. Rangel's assertions. Professor Segal says recruiters do not court some of the poorest potential enlistees because of such factors as inadequate education, bad health or a criminal record. And historically, he said, the wealthiest Americans have found loopholes such as deferments or National Guard service to get around drafts.
It is true, Professor Segal said, that the military now represents less of a broad economic cross-section of society than it did during World War II or the Korean War. Even so, he said, potential enlistees are turning away because they are increasingly aware that the financial incentives of serving are less appealing during wartime.
MILITARY marketers say that advertising alone usually does not persuade people to enlist; its purpose, they say, is to intrigue parents and potential enlistees enough to visit a military Web site for more information or to call a local recruiter. As part of that effort, the Defense Department provides a $20 million annual budget to an internal group, Joint Advertising Market Research and Studies, or Jamrs, which conducts campaigns that involve ads such as those that the Mullen agency has prepared for mid-October.
The group also maintains a well-stocked database of young Americans who might become recruits. That has drawn fire from critics who assert that the electronic catalog violates privacy rights and was hidden from the public until recently. In an e-mail message, a Defense Department spokesman said that the database's existence has been publicly disclosed, that the information is kept secure and confidential, and that the department began collecting personal data in 1982 in response to a Congressional mandate that "the Secretary of Defense obtain and compile directory information pertaining to students enrolled in secondary schools throughout the United States."
All of this data, Jamrs representatives said, is part of an integrated marketing strategy to support the recruitment efforts of each service branch.
"One of our main goals is to provide the services with actionable information that they can pass on to the influencers," said Matt Boehmer, Jamrs civilian program manager, who said research showed that parents had confidence in the military, but did not want their children to serve.
Colonel Nickerson of the Army says that ads are just the start of his marketing strategy, and that the goarmy.com Web site has become a focus because it is an efficient, low-cost tool that houses all recruitment information. He also says that deploying Army "ambassadors" like the Nascar racing star Joe Nemechek and sponsoring national events like the Army All-American Bowl for high school football players offers the military a chance to get personal.
"The real importance of a national event is that it's the one opportunity you have to talk directly to prospects and influencers about the meaning of service," he said. "An ad campaign can't do that in 30 seconds."
But the military still relies on those 30-second spots to open parents' doors. And in coming months, the Army's marketing and recruitment machine will be challenged to prove wrong the old joke that even the best ads cannot sell a troubled product.
"I think people in the armed services are racking their brains to come up with new recruiting messages," Professor Segal said. "But I don't know that they've come up with anything that's worked."