Last weekend marked a first for the British military; the first advertising campaign to be broadcast in real time from live operations. A series of live 60-second ads, broadcast Saturday night on ITV, were beamed straight from Afghanistan. What is more, they were not for the regular British Army, but reservist section the Territorial Army.
The question facing agency JWT London was just how to dispel an ongoing perception that Territorial Army reservists (similar to the Army National Guard in the U.S). are just "weekend warriors," playing at toy soldiers for kicks. Over the years, the image of the TA hasn't been helped by characters in TV shows such as the British version of The Office, in which Ricky Gervais' useless sidekick Gareth, played by Mackenzie Crook, constantly boasted of his TA prowess.
However, with a strong need to recruit (its goal is to double its numbers to 30,000 members by 2018, and it also aims to rename itself the Reservists), the TA decided to green-light a campaign that would "radically shift perceptions," according to Adam Scholes (pictured, left), the creative director on the campaign at JWT London.
While previous military campaigns have featured live elements (for example the Israeli Defense Force live-tweeted operations in Gaza last year), this is thought to be the first large-scale military campaign to include live broadcast. With more to come over the coming weekend, a total of 17 live ads will air, with the best live spot being replayed at the end of the day.
The idea was conceived by JWT and produced through partnership with the army, recruitment firm Capita and ITN, the news division of ITV. According to JWT's Mr. Scholes, the production team faced many obstacles, both creative and technical, as well as a complicated client-approval process (also involving the Ministry of Defense) to ensure operational security wasn't compromised.
The ads were directed by documentary maker Nick Murphy, who, after a week's intensive hostile-environment training, was on a plane to Afghanistan. Meanwhile, technical difficulties in broadcasting live from operations were eased by the involvement of ITN, said Mr. Scholes. "Our minds were put at rest by Chris Church, producer at ITN, who explained, 'Don't worry, we do this every day.'" Even so, it was "a nail-biting time" as the crew waited at ITN studios for the live broadcasts to come in, via satellite. "Approvals and compliance were needed literally as the ad was being filmed, which meant representatives from Clearcast (the U.K. ad-broadcast-approval body), ITN, the client and the creatives all squashed into a tiny studio, saying yes very quickly."
Creatively, there are all the potential pitfalls of live TV. "You have very little control over what you're going to get," said Mr. Scholes. "We were a little worried about swearing live on air, particularly when we heard one broadcast was to feature soldiers playing a card game, known affectionately as 'S***head.' Casting was difficult as we would often 'lose' cast members; they were needed on the front line. There's no editing and no 'don't worry we'll sort that out in post, guys.' But it's hard to beat the buzz of receiving a live ad down the line."
Zoe Boustead, marketing director at the Army Recruiting Group, echoes that excitement. "The atmosphere in the edit suite as the live broadcasts stream through is electric: we don't really know what will be coming over the satellite link and it's exciting and unnerving, particularly when we are doing live-within-live programming and timing becomes critical." Ms. Boustead adds that since the ads started airing, the TA has seen a high volume of viewers on its YouTube channel as well as tweets asking where to sign up.Whether the British Army (or indeed any other military) would approve such a campaign for regular soldiers is unclear, but the project does illustrate an evolution of military recruitment campaigns. With viewers now used to news crews embedded with military units, it may only be a matter of time before such techniques become the norm.