The U.S. Army and McCann Erickson Worldgroup, New York, have finally unveiled the new recruiting slogan, replacing Leo Burnett's self-contradictory "Army of One," and there's not a whole lot to find fault with. In the midst of a catastrophic war claiming tens of thousands of U.S. casualties, the brief was probably pretty simple:
Try not to lie
Come up with a plausible reason for kids to risk getting themselves blown up, but try not to actually lie.
The problem with the "Army of One" tagline was the lying part, namely positioning military life as a means of individual self-expression. Many of the ads themselves were actually quite brilliant, but the central premise was classic bait and switch. The essence of military discipline, after all, is to subordinate one's oneness -- as opposed to, say, "Excuse me, sergeant, but I really don't feel comfortable with that suggestion."
It would have been funny if it weren't so tragic. We must assume that some number of the U.S. dead included young men and women who signed up thinking they were going to find themselves, only to find themselves too close to an IED.
Hence the Army's marketing problem. Iraq is a tough sell. The recruiting command has met its targets only by lowering standards on education levels and basic aptitude. If there is no phased withdrawal beginning soon, Uncle Sam will be wanting 18-year-old ninth-graders, 34-year-old ex-cons and able-bodied members of the do-not-fly list. Maybe John Kerry did botch his punch line, but he wasn't entirely wrong.
Under the circumstances, then, McCann managed to fill the bill-focusing on the character benefits flowing from service and esprit de corps. These, after all, are not nothing.
"There's 'strong,' and then there's 'Army strong,"' opens the 30-second version of the introductory spot, featuring handsome and intrepid young soldiers in training. Here marching, here patrolling, here boarding copters, here pitching a tent. "It's more than physical strength; it is emotional strength. Not just strength in numbers, but strength of brothers. Not just the strength to get yourself over, [we see them scaling a towering rope obstacle] the strength to get over yourself. There's nothing stronger than the U.S. Army, because there is nothing stronger than a U.S. Army soldier. There's 'strong,' and then there's 'Army strong."'
'Get over yourself'
The "get over yourself" line is fantastic. And the rest minimally does its job of portraying Army service as selfless and heroic. What it doesn't do is acknowledge the elephant in the room. Save for one flashing image in the 60-second of a medic placing his stethoscope to the chest of a healthy-looking Iraqi boy, there is not the slightest reference to wartime. The strength message scans as far as it goes, but is drowned out by the deafening silence about violent reality.
This is especially true in two other spots, aimed less at recruits than at their parents. In one, we visit with a real soldier named Brandon Talsma and his folks on their farm in Monroe, Iowa. "It was tough to tell them I was joining the Army at first," Brandon says -- and not because of the obstacle course.
"I'm pretty nervous, uh, apprehensive," says Dad. "But I'm very proud of him."
"He's just a stronger, more driven individual," says Mom.
These are austere environs, where only the background music gushes, but Dad's forced smile and Mom's mechanical earnestness betray everything. They are proud but stricken. Only Brandon seems genuinely enthused, maybe because at least he's getting out of Monroe.
Now there's a positioning: War is hell -- a hell of a lot more interesting than home.
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Spot: "Army Strong"
Marketer: U.S. Army
Agency: McCann Worldgroup
Location: New York
UPDATE: Bob Responds to commenters on his blog.