The wrong campaign

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When the peacetime draft ended in 1971, something new appeared on the advertising scene. Big ad budgets for government programs, now commonplace, were unknown, but suddenly the "I Want You" poster in front of the post office was supplanted by a 10-week, $10 million dollar TV blitz, huge for those days. A provocative slogan crafted by N.W. Ayer told young people "Today's Army Wants to Join You." A dramatic TV commercial showed a solitary soldier running an obstacle course in the desert.

Ayer went by the book in coming up with this surprising idea. From interviews and focus groups they learned young people didn't want to surrender their individuality to the "Big Green Machine." They wanted to wear their hair long. They wanted a life. The new ads suggested that in this more accommodating Army they could have one. Wants and needs were met; objections addressed; all the usual marketing stuff.

The Army was in fact making important changes in the way people were treated, but the subversive implications of the slogan were nevertheless profoundly unsettling to professional soldiers. And the campaign had indeed overreached, implying liberties that were not then-and still aren't-part of the first term soldier's lot. By 1973 the slogan was gone, but the memory lingered on, and very good advertising that followed did not redeem Ayer's reputation with many Army people until the triumphal 1981 launch of "Be All You Can Be."

Now we have come full circle. Pentagon consultants running focus groups have found that today's young people dislike the idea of military service for contemporary reasons that sound remarkably like the negatives discovered by N.W. Ayer in 1971. The Army's new agency, Leo Burnett USA, has addressed the objection that you can't be your own person in Army green with a provocative slogan, "I Am an Army of One," that Army professionals will dislike as much as "Today's Army Wants to Join You," and that prospective enlistees may have a hard time comprehending. We even have dramatic footage of a lone soldier running through the desert.

Overcoming objections is generally the job of Army recruiters, but it can be done in a limited way with advertising. Early "Be All You Can Be" ads capitalized on the largest modernization program in Army history to turn around the Army's off-putting low-tech image, and a later evolution used labor market research to counter the notion that Army skills are not transferable to the civilian workplace.

But suggesting that Army life is freer and more individually empowering than is commonly believed is a different kind of proposition, and one not apt to find many buyers. Indeed, it may not be possible to make more people want to enlist, no matter what kind of puffing is done.

Over the years, the proportion of young people whose responses to "propensity" questions indicate a desire to be soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines has remained minuscule, despite heavy advertising and promotion. Those who say "definitely not" constitute well over 50%, a statistic that gets bigger in tight labor markets. However, a substantial number do show themselves to be persuadable, perhaps willing to endure the sacrifices involved in military service for sufficient benefit, tangible and intangible.

This is the recruiter's market. What has always brought them in the recruiting station door is the component of advertising that tells them about the variety of ways Army service can help them be all they can be.

Reports of turmoil in an advertising program will understandably lead Advertising Age readers to empathize with their fellow professionals. One agency has lost the business; the new one is off to an inauspicious start. Tough on the people involved.

But from my long association with them, I am more apt to shed tears for the 7,000 or so Army recruiters. They have heard it said, by people who are supposed to know, that the existing ads no longer work and must be replaced, a discouraging-and, technically, unprovable-judgment. Now the replacements are receiving a harsh reception in the editorial columns of daily newspapers. Another downer.

These are not professional salesmen, but good soldiers who have been detailed to do a tough job they didn't enlist for and endure a kind of stress they could not have foreseen. Some find it a satisfying challenge and elect to finish their careers in recruiting. But most serve honorably until they can return, usually with considerable relief, to work in their normal Army specialties.

Recruiters are resilient and can, in the short run, compensate for imperfect marketing support-advertising, although important, is only about 10% of recruiting expense and probably contri-butes correspondingly to recruiting production.

But they shouldn't have to. If the current crop of Army marketers have taken a wrong turn, and early returns on "I Am an Army of One" suggest that could well be the case, they need to fix the problem sooner rather than later.

Looking more closely than they obviously have into the distinguished history of their own advertising program would be a good first step.

Mr. Evans was U.S. Army Recruiting Command deputy director of advertising and public affairs from 1973 to 1993. In that post, he was the Contracting Officer's Representative, which made him the civilian officially responsible for overseeing the agency and evaluating results.

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