Alas for the Army. Nobody likes their new ads.
Of course, the Army isn’t the only service drawing flak for making changes. The Air Force recently adopted a new recruiting slogan, “No One Comes Close” not that swift a choice for a service specializing in precision bombing, perhaps. The Navy’s Spike Lee spots, showing happy, attractive young sailors (both genders) frolicking ashore when not patrolling the oceans under the benign tutelage of amiable officers and beatific chiefs, also jump-started a few eyebrows. But the Army’s $150 million “An Army of One” campaign, succeeding the venerable “Be All You Can Be” pitch, seems to have hit an exceptionally unfunny bone.
The first television spot aired recently during “Friends.” The ad shows Cpl. Richard P. Lovett jogging through the desert under full pack but neither sweating nor breathing hard; vehicles and helicopters go by in the other direction. Cpl. Lovett informs us: “I am an Army of one. More precisely, Even though there are 1,045,690 soldiers just like me, I am my own force. With technology, with training, with support, who I am has become better than who I was. . . . the might of the U.S. Army doesn t lie in numbers. It lies in me. I am an Army of one.”
This ad and others will also appear on “The Simpsons,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” MTV, and elsewhere. For those who can’t wait, or who object to federal subsidy of the aforementioned entertainment, check out the Army’s recruiting Web site, www.goarmy.com.
So what’s the rationale? Both the Army and their agency, Leo Burnett, explain that too many modern kids think of military service as dehumanizing and stifling. To sell the product, you have to make it more attuned to their values and lifestyles, more relevant and empowering. Opined Army Secretary Louis Caldera, “They are going to get the ethic of selfless service, duty, honor, and country in basic training and in every unit they’re assigned to. But you’ve got to get them in the door to try selfless service.”
(Some years ago, an Army officer working on the “Be All” campaign put it to me more cynically. “Look,” he said with a cheerfully wicked smile, “the customer only has to buy the product once.”)
Still, the critics, especially the critics in uniform, are carping that the new ads pander, distort, and devalue. Perhaps. In any event,the Army has been here before.
Prior to the 1970s, none of the services ran extensive paid campaigns. Vietnam and the end of the draft forced them into it. The Army’s first postwar promotion “Today’s Army Wants to Join YOU” proved an expensive disaster. In 1979, the GAO commissioned some marketing consultants to assess the program. Their conclusion: “The problem isn’t the promotion. The problem is the product. The Army responded by launching the “Be All You Can Be” campaign in 1980.
At first, it seemed just more of the same. But a confluence of historical events and marketing acumen turned it into one of the most memorable campaigns in advertising history.
The historical events were Ronald Reagan and the physical and cultural resurrection of the military, i.e., the product. The marketing acumen centered on two facts. First, there is an interested and qualified pool of young people available for military service. Advertising cannot expand this pool significantly. (The Pentagon tried with its short-lived “Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines: A Great Place to Start” campaign.) All advertising can do is incline young people to one service or another. The Army understood that, compared to the other services, its image is foggier, its benefits less well-defined. “Be All You Can Be” finessed this problem beautifully. Kids could see what they wanted to see.
Second, the decision to serve, and the choice of service, is rarely made in a vacuum. Families, peers, girl and boy friends, communities, respected elders all have to be sold. Yeah, I can see myself doing that provides a first step only. The campaign offered its self-centered pitch. But by virtue of its mellowness, variety, and two-decades worth of presence, it also became a cultural artifact, as evocative and valid in its way as the Marines austere “The Few. The Proud” approach. That helped potential recruits overcome the opposition or hesitancy of others.
(In the 1970s, the Marines went with the “We Don t Promise You a Rose Garden” motif, featuring posters of drill sergeants going nose-to-nose with recruits. According to Headquarters legend, one officer redid the poster to read, “We Don’t Promise You ****.” Marketing and focus group data has never been released.)
So perhaps the important question is not, do the Army ads pander and devalue, but can they evolve into something more worthy. I suspect they can. At least, Cpl. Lovett’s out there humping the boonies, not skateboarding in San Diego or playing turista in Hong Kong.
And, speaking of the Marines, the cover of their new Marine Corps Strategy 21 paper features a quote from Gen. James Jones, the commandant: “For the strength of the Corps is the Marine and the strength of the Marine is the Corps.”
Not exactly an “Army of One.” But not exactly a refutation, either.
Philip Gold is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute in Seattle and president of Aretea, a cultural affairs center.