Leo Burnett's Recruitment Commercials Are Brilliant

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Client: U.S. Army
Agency: Leo Burnett, Chicago
Star Rating: 4

"Be all you can be." That was good.

'Nice Plan'
'Right for Me'
'Something Important'

In fact, self-actualization through discipline and espirit de corps was one of the greatest advertising ideas ever. And its evolution wasn't bad, either. In a tough economy, the pitch shifted from being all you can be to earning all you can earn, which suited the times.

An Army of One
Not so "An Army of One." As we observed at the outset, this was brazen bait-and-switch. It may sound good to position Army life as a way to cultivate your individuality, but how ridiculous it must seem to every grunt who ever had to utterly suppress his or her individuality to survive military life.

Or simply to survive.

Which, at this moment in history, is all too central a proposition. War in Iraq and Afghanistan has made the armed forces desperate for recruits. Next year, the Army alone needs to sign on or re-up 80,000 soldiers, and their mission has long since ceased to be hypothetical. The opportunity to find yourself is somewhat less compelling when the fine print says you may find yourself under rocket-propelled grenade attack by the grateful liberated.

But nobody ever talks about war in military advertising, do they? It's all adventure and rock climbing and foreign ports and video screens. The killing foreigners and getting-your-limbs-blown-off part never quite finds its way into the TV commercials.

Ultimate advertising challenge
Furthermore, the Army of One by no means has an audience of one. The military's problem is compounded by the fact that recruits are mainly teenagers. If they, in all their adolescent obliviousness, can overlook their own mortality, their parents most likely will not. All of which is to say: This is the ultimate advertising challenge.

A challenge managed stunningly in the Army campaign from Leo Burnett, Chicago.

Unbearable tension
Three spots, in the cinema verite style, show young people confronting their parents with their decision to enlist. Each vignette is brilliantly acted and directed to capture the unbearable tension of the moment, as each kid in turn turns their folks' Parental Platitudes into an unassailable argument for military service. The first shows a mechanic, working on a car, when his son tries to get his attention.

Kid: "So, Dad, there's something I need to tell you."

Dad: "How much is this gonna cost me?"

Kid: "No, it's not like that."

Dad: "Is this the motorcycle thing again?"

Kid: "It's not the motorcycle. It's about what you said the other day, about me doing something for myself, maybe something important."

Dad: (after a long pause) "O.K. Go ahead."

Not "Go ahead, do what you want," but "Go ahead, I'm listening." Then the title card: "Become a soldier." And a chill rushes up your spine.

Life-and-death stakes
Do these scenarios mention the horrors of war? No. Do they gloss it over? No. The life-and-death stakes are profoundly implicit, generating the staggering tension in each utterly understated scene. The only question remaining is whether the other underlying assumption -- the benevolence of Army service -- is still even true. But that is a political issue, not a marketing one.

Under the circumstances, this advertising is all that it can be.