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Advertising for an army

As Americans prepare for a possible war with Iraq, the various branches of the U.S. military are pouring money into TV commercials, Web sites and even an adrenalized video game in efforts to win tech-savvy new recruits. By Jane Weaver.
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As Americans prepare for a possible war with Iraq, the various branches of the U.S. military are pouring money into TV commercials, Web sites and even an adrenalized video game in efforts to win tech-savvy new recruits.

IN A SOMBER new public service announcement for the Marine Corps., reverent music accompanies images of young men and women in training, jumping from helicopters and climbing hurdles. There’s no voiceover, but the words “For honor, for courage, for country” appear before the spot closes with the Marines symbol and Web site address.

The patriotic tone of the Marines recruiting ad, scheduled to begin airing this month, may be in tune with the mood of the country as the U.S. heads closer to a war with Iraq, but Maj. David Griesmer says the public service announcement has been in development for months and is not directly related to current world events.

Still, at a time when high school seniors are more likely to consider going to college than serving in the all-volunteer military, the Department of Defense has substantially increased recruitment advertising budgets and the various branches are trying new methods that reflect the nature of the modern military. They’re offering signing bonuses, with some reaching as much as $20,000 for tough-to-fill jobs. And, they’re actively recruiting with slick TV commercials, movie ads, race car sponsorships and a multi-million dollar video game — a far cry from the posters that were the military’s recruitment mainstay for most of the past century.

Still, the old-fashioned themes of teamwork, pride and service to country have resurfaced — messages that research says appeal to post-9/11 teenagers.

“Any good organization that wants to attract young people has to adapt to their technology and interests,” said Paul Hogan, an economist with The Lewin Group who worked on a study on military recruiting and youth for the National Research Council released in August.

The military needs approximately 200,000 new recruits each year. Despite concerns that possible conflicts in Iraq and on the Korean Penninsula could dissuade potential recruits, officers at the branches insist that their recruiting efforts aren’t affected.

“Our message doesn’t change,” said Griesmer of the current Marine recruiting campaign. “It’s built to work in both peacetime and war.”

Apart from the upcoming public service announcement, the Marines’ TV campaign, “The Climb,” focuses on the search for “elite, tough warriors,” he said.

For fiscal year 2003, the Marines are on track to meet their goal of 38,000 new recruits, Griesmer said.

The Army and Air Force are airing their new TV commercials on networks such as MTV and VH-1. The Navy is running Web banners hyping its “multi-million dollar high-tech equipment” on sports and game sites.

Three years ago, the Army, which has a yearly advertising budget of more than $85 million, dropped its 20-year-old slogan “Be all you can be.” Now it uses: “Army of One.”

Then last September, the Army revamped the official recruiting site,, showing visitors short films about new recruits going through basic training. There’s also “America’s Army,” a realistic video game the Army spent $6 million developing. In the free downloadable game, players become sharp shooters, learn to parachute for the airborne and work their way up through the ranks to first sergeant.

Since the game’s release July 4, 2002, more than 1.3 million players have registered to play and the game is consistently one of the top five computer action games played online worldwide.

Most recruiting occurs face-to-face or over the telephone, but the Web site and video game have helped the Army meet its goal of 73,800 new recruits for the year, said Paul Boyce of the Army press office.

And as part of a $16 million NASCAR sponsorship, the Army has hooked up with driver Jerry Nadeau as a way to reach young racing fans. The Air Force also is a sponsor of NASCAR, and leverages that to drum up recruitment.

“When [the showcar] pulls up in a high school parking lot, it definitely attracts a crowd for the recruiters,” said Donald Carpenter, director of strategic marketing for the Air Force.


Military officials also have a controversial new tool to aid in recruiting — the names and addresses of every high shool junior and senior in the country. Under an obscure provision in last year’s “No Child Left Behind Act,” high schools have to pass along the names of students. Failure to comply results in lost funds.

Athough parents can choose not to include their children’s names in the list, the government has been accused of invading the students’ privacy.

The Air Force’s Carpenter said the branches already purchased and had access to mailing lists of high school students and the new law hasn’t made a “huge difference” for us.

Not all the new tactics have succeeded.

A four-minute movie trailer produced jointly by the Navy and Marines, “Enduring Freedom: The Opening Chapter” was yanked last October when the theater chain Regal Cinema received complaints from parents who were disturbed their children were shown scenes of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center.

What will happen to other recruiting ads, if the U.S. invades Iraq and American troops suffer casualities. Or, worse, if there are tragic attacks on civilian targets?

During the Persian Gulf war in 1991, military advertising was one of the first casualties, with the themes of education and career-training determined to be incompatible with sending troops into a combat zone. After the Sept. 11 attacks, all of the various military branches either temporarily cancelled or modified their recruitment campaigns.

There are no specific plans for any of the branches to stop recruitment advertising if war breaks out this time, but if some tragic event were to affect American troops or if there were disastrous attacks on civilian target, it’s likely that the various branches would yank recruitment ads at least temporarily, military recruiting experts said.

Boyce said the Army could quickly change its messaging on the official Web site,

“We have all sorts of contingency plans, but we don’t try to predict before events happen,” he said. “We can respond pretty quickly with media and on the Internet.”