Army's latest isn't all it can be and rings false

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Marketer: U.S. Army
Agency: Leo Burnett USA, Chicago
Ad Review rating: One and a half stars

"An army of one," huh? Well, I guess they'll meet their recruiting goals.

All incredibly hilarious wisecracks aside, the debut campaign from Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, on the U.S. Army account is certainly an attention-getter. The opening spot is a riveting piece of filmmaking, a shot of a tiny, distant figure in the background of a vast desertscape. We see very little but a reflective glint, but we hear the unmistakable sound of huffing and puffing. Progressively tighter shots reveal the figure to be a soldier, jogging, alone. The glint is the dawn's reflection on his dog tags.

"I am an army of one," he narrates. "Even though there are 1,045,690 soldiers just like me, I am my own force. With technology, with support, with training, who I am has become better than who I was. And I'll be the first to tell you the might of the U.S. Army doesn't lie in numbers. It lies in me: Corporal Richard Lovett. I am an army of one, and you can see my stripe."

Yeah, yeah, corporal. It's all 'bout you. You don't have to be all you can be. You can be approximately just as you are, so long as there's a helicopter flying overhead to save your self-absorbed ass when you lose your bearings there in the Mojave.

Oh, it's certainly a dramatic and beautiful commercial. And, if you don't pay much attention, it even seems to be inspiring. But what a strange, strange message from the U.S. Army in response to the evolution of the recruiting marketplace.

Let's look back at "Be all you can be." The post-Vietnam mood had imposed a stigma on military service. What once had been a duty and an honor had, for many, taken on the moral equivalence of being an undercover narc. Just as the armed forces were transforming themselves from vast populations of grunts with rifles to a high-tech corps, requiring the best and the brightest, a soldier in uniform was an object of scorn.

So the Army, with the help of N.W. Ayer, New York, turned the proposition away from the recruiting organization and onto the recruit. "Be all you can be" was not about serving your country; it was about serving yourself, finding your inner hero-or, at least, your inner getterupperat5a.m.

It was brilliant, and it worked famously. But eventually it stopped attracting the best and brightest. So, under Y&R Advertising, the message got a bit more practical, veering from self-actualization to naked ambition. Joining the Army meant training, scholarships, cash money. It was couched, literally, as an investment in yourself. And that served, too, until the economy got humming.

In the past five years, why would a high-school grad reduce himself to the degradation and grueling demands of military service for future scholarships when Cisco Systems, or-hell-7-Eleven, would pay big bucks immediately? The Army's financial package was simply too pale to impress enough qualified recruits. So now comes "An army of one," appealing not to self-improvement, nor to ambition, but to an exaggerated sense of self-esteem.

Well, here's the big problem: it isn't true. The Army is not, has never been, and will never be about one soldier. Maybe the Army doesn't take quite the extreme Marine Corps approach to disintegrating the recruit's personality in order to reconstruct him in the Corps' image, but it ain't self-employment, either. To suggest otherwise is disingenuous at best.

It's bait and switch, is what it is, only instead of getting pressured into the more expensive mattress, you spend three years making bad money while taking orders from halfwits. Oh, and given America's fairly interventionist posture in the post-Cold War world, you could very easily get yourself killed. Ever see the recruiting poster in the old "Simpsons" episode? "Join the Army," it said, "and see the opposing army."

We're actually eager to see what the Marine Corps trots out in response. The Corps, which at the moment employs the tagline, "The Few. The Proud. The Marines," may find itself pressured to one-up the Army's slogan, perhaps promising even greater exclusivity.

Maybe this: "The U.S. Marines. We will not be undersold."

Copyright January 2001, Crain Communications Inc.

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