Cruel Numbers

In November of 2006, the U.S. Army retired the generally reviled Army of One tagline, a slogan that Harper’s had once cheekily referred to as being “aimed at alienated losers.” McCann-Erickson took over Army marketing from the firm of Leo Burnett, scoring a plum $200 million to hawk what, in an age of Iraq (itself rebranded as an old-fashioned civil war) and over 3,000 American mortalities as of this writing, is becoming a less and less desirable product. With recruitment down for obvious reasons (and a Democratic Congress who might have yanked the Yankees out of our Iraqi adventure by the time you read this), the Army is doubtlessly eager to see its new image generate concrete results in the form of the 80,000 fresh bodies in uniform required annually—they’ve earmarked 1.35 billion American tax dollars over the next five years to make it so. (If this sounds steep, keep in mind that operating costs for the war have been as high as $195 million, daily). Army Strong is now the blunt two-word catcall being used to entice young men and women into service, and it comes backed by polished video clips directed by Samuel Bayer. If the name’s not familiar, he was previously best known for crafting Nirvana’s seminal “Nevermind” video in 1991, along with the WWII-inflected footage for Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September’s Gone.” (In an added taste of sweet irony, Forbes reports that Courtney Love recently sold rights to Cobain songs for a CSI: Miami episode about—ahem—“evil military recruiters.”)

Army Strong is, by military marketing standards, a long-winded exercise in pedestrian tedium—it begins by citing a dictionary definition of “strength” culled from Webster’s, followed by a litany of strength-based platitudes set to a gushingly hyperbolic classical score. Along the way we see men and women driving tanks, building bridges and walking with small (evidently Iraqi) children. Missing are the amped rock soundtracks of yesteryear, the pumped-up quick-cuts of brawny dudes leaping out of helicopters loaded down with enough heavy metal to fill a Terminator sequel. The tone and tact might differ, but the Army is still addressing potential recruits in the language of personal improvement with a dab of national sacrifice.

“What [the Army] found early on in the 1970s when they started doing marketing research is that young people didn’t want to join the Army because they were afraid of losing their individuality,” explains Beth Bailey, a history professor at Temple University and author of an upcoming book on military marketing. She explains the way in which the 1973 shift from a draft to volunteer-based Army created a unique challenge: the need to sell enlistment as a desirable ambition rather than a mandatory obligation. “The initial campaign they started was Today’s Army Wants To Join You, which was meant to turn Uncle Sam Wants You on its head.” The new slogan lasted from 1971–73, when it was replaced by the enigmatic Join the People Who’ve Joined the Army (73–79), a stint that included a TV spot in which a smirky young pimp-cum-enlistee tells each of his many girlfriends, “I wanted you to be the first to know…I’ve joined the Army.” This was followed by the blunt, idiot-proof, This is the Army (79–81) and 1981–2001’s reigning champ, Be All You Can Be.

Making children better people

If JFK once famously ordered us to “ask not what our country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” the Army then tweaks the equation and posits enlistment as a kind of self-help solution for personal improvement of the emotional, psychological and physical variety. In other words, sure, you’ll be helping spread democracy and save the world and all that sanctimonious pabulum, but you’ll also grow emotionally, get into totally awesome shape and maybe score a few bucks for college along the way. (Timothy L. O’Brien at the New York Times described a 2005 series of Leo Burnett spots as “gauzy, sentimental television ads…that attempt to woo parents with the message that military life makes their children better people.”) This focus is visible most strongly beginning with the Be All You Can Be era of Army advertising, which stresses individual growth over anything else—as one commercial’s voiceover notes, you’ll “learn that the real challenge doesn’t come from outside, but from within.” There’s a nice logical two-step involved here, and it draws attention to what’s conspicuously absent in most all Army marketing: enemy combatants, i.e., the people that you’ll be hired to kill once the ink dries on your enlistment contract. The rhetoric of personal growth allows for a more palatable picture—the enemy you’re really fighting will be the Old You, the You that hasn’t yet lived up to “all you can be.”

Army recruitment and marketing materials generally speak in vague terms when it comes to recent history—you’d be hard pressed to find any that mention the toppling of Saddam Hussein, for instance, or the ousting of the Taliban. Army Strong and its predecessors are more about building an intangible bubble of positivity to counteract the negative facts filtering down through CNN and MSNBC. “The [ads] since the war have started work to call back that honorable tradition of service, [to] summon the feel of WWII in some ways,” Professor Bailey explains. “The music is akin to the Band of Brothers soundtrack. That’s one of the problematic things. There was a lot of contestation about whether it is legitimate for the Army to pay for broadcast advertising—is this a form of propaganda? As soon as the war started in Iraq, all of a sudden we’re getting commercials that had already been prepared, that were all about duty and honor and linking this implicitly with the ‘good war’ of WWII.”

With over 3,000 dead in Iraq, it makes sense that the new campaign focuses more on the cerebral and metaphysical benefits of being a soldier, along with nods toward previous (more noble) wars, rather than the nuts-and-bolts realities of combat in Iraq. Regardless, Army staff and pundits have stressed the fact that the actualities of the Iraqi conflict are not to be shaded over. Colonel Thomas Nickerson, writing in Army News, also wanted to acknowledge that the urban ad execs responsible for crafting copy for the campaign—upper class men and women not about to enlist any time soon—were given a glimpse of what Army Strong might mean. In an exercise that goes far beyond traditional corporate team-building, the McCann crew “took part in a three-day mini basic combat training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.” George Dewey, senior vice president at McCann-Erickson Worldwide, told the New York Times that “there’s absolutely no avoiding [Iraq],” although the agency “wanted to focus on the timeless qualities of the Army.” (Despite repeated requests, Anthem was not given official Army approval to discuss these campaigns directly with either Leo Burnett or McCann representatives).

Cartoon sergeants and Iraq video games

The Army isn’t sticking to simple broadcast and print advertisements to boost their “brand image.” They’ve gotten wired—the slick website features live recruiter chat, video testimonials from soldiers and the interactive “Sergeant Star,” a cartoon bot who will gruffly and robotically answer all your service-related questions. In November 2006, Salon’s Whitney Joiner reported on the synergy marketing campaign being launched by the Army in conjunction with The Source magazine. The road tour seeks to capitalize on the accoutrements of hip-hop culture in order to improve the Army’s brand image among African-Americans. (“Our research tells us that hip-hop and urban culture is a powerful influence in the lives of young Americans,” Joiner is told by Colonel Thomas Nickerson. “I want them to say, ‘Hey, the Army was here—the Army is cool!”’)

On the digital front, many are now familiar with America’s Army, a first-person shooter game available for free online. The game, which is also distributed gratis at Army recruitment centers, has been alternately lauded and vilified as either a helpful tool for training or a subversive catalyst for adolescent recruitment. Village Voice critic Ed Halter examined the larger history of electronic warmongering in his excellent survey, From Sun Tzu to Xbox: War and Video Games (Thunder’s Mouth Press).

“Just like Coke or Pepsi or McDonald’s, it’s about penetration of brand awareness,” Halter explains. “People say: I’m downloading America’s Army, and I don’t want to join the Army and I don’t believe in the Army, but it’s a means—you’re spreading the name around.” Halter notes that, while most traditional Army advertisements are aimed at recruits as well as their parents, video games work a different angle. “You’re getting mostly males, a younger audience, and you’re getting males who have some interest in ‘playing soldier.’ The other thing is that it slides under the radar of the parents.” And as for achieving a greater understanding of the complexities of warfare through video game simulations? “[The games] remove the reasons for war, the moral issues of war. They simply portray war as a tactical exercise, and everything gets flattened out—it’s the same events happening in a different landscape, with slightly different costumes and weapons, but ultimately it’s all the same thing. That is kind of a military attitude.” The advertisements for the America’s Army platforms themselves seem to act equally as promotional tools for both virtual and authentic warfare. “The spot displays a series of titles that concatenate into a patriotic hymn of adver-poetry,” Halter writes in From Sun Tzu to Xbox. “Like much marketing copy, whether designed to sell a soft drink, an election, or a war, it is filled with emotional, empty language, what Sinclair Lewis called ‘noble but slippery abstractions.’ Each [tagline] holds at least two meanings: does it refer to the real world, the game world, or maybe both?”

Warporn and the 18-year old lead

Of course, there’s no way of knowing the hard numbers as to how backdoor recruitment tactics like America’s Army, polished and patriotic commercials, or interactive Web tools are affecting enlistment—new recruits aren’t necessarily quizzed on the factors that led to their decision. The mental process from curiosity to research through signing a contract is complicated and diverse, as experts like Professor Bailey are quick to point out. “[The ads] aren’t meant to sell enlistment,” she clarifies. “It’s meant to sell: talk to somebody.” Like a TV spot for a car dealership, it’s the cognitive push that might get an 18-year-old boy or girl to visit a local recruiter—at that point, the advertising barrage is strengthened by the human touch of personal salesmanship. If the potential enlistee (called a “lead” in official parlance) has already been softened up by television spots, video games and war movies, then it just makes closing the deal a bit easier. “It’s hard to sell ‘job training’ when bullets are flying,” says James Dertouzos, co-author of the RAND policy report, Is Military Advertising Effective? “The appeal has to be different, more emotive, in today’s world.”

There is, however, always the difficulty of getting too emotional. Ed Halter cites a series of Navy and Marine commercials that appeared as extended trailers before movies at select cinemas in 2002—the clips went straight for the patriotic jugular, opening with footage of planes crashing into the WTC. The visceral campaign, Halter says, was pulled after complaints, including one from a Los Angeles woman who’d been appalled to have her daughter forced to watch the trauma of September 11th before a screening of the animated favorite VeggieTales.

You won’t find any smoldering Twin Towers in the new Army Strong spots, which stick to self-improvement rather than knee-jerk jingoism (a glance at the military blogosphere suggests that the manly couplet “the strength to get over/the strength to get over yourself” is becoming a fast favorite.) Mark Duffy, NYC copywriting veteran for fifteen years and avid lampooner of crappy advertising on his popular, shared his own humble opinion of the Army’s new initiative: “It’s an improvement, but only because Army of One was a bald-faced load of hooey,” he says. “I think they should have gone straight warporn—they’re lamely trying to ignore that we’re in two wars, but the wars are not glamorous. There’s no enemy tanks to blow up, no enemy planes to shoot down. If you’re going to lie, at least make it exciting.”

Duffy makes an important point. Though it’s not really fair to accuse the military of being deceitful, since advertising is, at its heart, the art of persuasion through the selective use or abuse of facts, an appeal to emotion over logic—in other words, an institutionalized and profitable form of telling lies, some whiter than others. We shouldn’t expect Army commercials to “accurately” showcase the horrors of war any more than we’d expect McDonald’s spots to include footage from beef slaughterhouses. If, as Professor Bailey claims, many in the field have no qualms using the traditional terms of “product” and “consumer” to signify the Army and its potential recruits, then it is ultimately up to us to be smart shoppers. The argument is muddied, of course, by the fact that we’re not being asked to buy a cheeseburger, a Toyota Camry or a new alternative to the iPod—we might in all actuality, to paraphrase a once-presidential hopeful, be signing up for the chance to be “the last man to die for a mistake.” Caveat emptor, indeed.

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