WASHINGTON (AdAge.com) -- The economy may be bad news to most marketers, but to the U.S. Army, it's making the job of recruiting a little easier.
Top officials who oversee the Army's recruitment say they, too, would like to see things improve, but they acknowledge that the economy, together with easing worries about violence in Iraq and even President Barack Obama's election, is helping their task.
"I believe it is a change in administration and optimism," said Lt. Gen. Benjamin Freakley, commanding general of the U.S. Army Accessions Command, which heads Army recruiting.
"There is a factor of Iraq and constant reporting that we are going to downsize and leave. How long we stay there is still being worked out, but it's fairly well-understood that we are going to lower the number of troops in Iraq, regardless of how long we stay there. That is a factor. The economy is a factor."
He said Mr. Obama's arrival as president is also a factor. "It's just anecdotal, but there are parts of America that are opening up to us."
The Army overshot its recruiting goal of 80,000 soldiers by 517 for its fiscal year that ended in September. This year, it has continued to achieve its goals.
The Army finds recruiting less difficult during bad economic times, Army officials said, but recruitment doesn't always correlate with indicators such as unemployment, suggesting that other factors -- most obviously war -- are also at play.
Since the Army launched its all-volunteer force in 1974, at least officially, its biggest problems meeting recruiting numbers have come in 1977, when unemployment was at 7.1%; 1978, when unemployment was at 6.1%; 1979, when unemployment was at 5.8%; 1990, when unemployment dropped to 4.2%; and 2005, when it was 5.1%. The Army's recruitment year ends in September, while the Bureau of Labor Statistics uses a calendar year for unemployment figures.
The Army made its numbers for its regular force in every other year, including 2000, when the nation's unemployment dropped to 4.0%, the nation's lowest since the all-volunteer force was launched. The Army also made its numbers in 1999, when unemployment was at 4.2%. The Army Reserve had more years of missed numbers.
There have been some suggestions that the Army eased its recruiting standards to achieve some of those totals, though that isn't clear in the recruiting numbers themselves. It also had some help from Congress, which pushed up bonuses and advertising spending. Last week in his speech to Congress, Mr. Obama urged an increase in military pay.
Economy not the answer
Whatever help the economy may offer, Army officials say it still doesn't make recruiting easy. And neither does a troop buildup in Afghanistan, even as the U.S. pulls more soldiers out of Iraq.
Lt. Gen. Freakley said he stopped at one recruiting office in a Minnesota mall recently and was told that the walk-in traffic was six people a week. "They're not just going to come," he said.
He said the Army has to market to an audience many other marketers are targeting. "The media clutter out there is enormous," he said. "You have to have a precise, tailored message to the 17- to 24-year-olds and their parents."
That doesn't mean the Army has abandoned TV. Lt. Gen. Freakley credited McCann Worldwide's "Army Strong" campaign for raising the Army's profile.
"When I'm in a recruiting station, and I ask an applicant, 'Have you ever seen an "Army Strong" ad?' and a young guy says, 'It gives me goose bumps,' I know we are onto something," he said.
Still, he said the Army is increasingly relying on the web and other channels such as Nascar and NHRA sponsorships.
On youth turf
The Army has web videos on GoArmy.com that answer questions about what basic training and life on a base are like. The Army also has games potential recruits can play, and even has a Yahoo instant-messaging product that has gotten more than 1 million hits.
"We are trying to find the youth where they are and put [the Army] in their consideration set," said Lt. Gen. Freakley, noting the more than 150 skills for which the Army offers training.
The Army is also reaching out to parents. "Those who write about the millennials and this generation talk about the parents being helicopter parents; they hover over the youth," he said. "This is a family decision."
Several Army officials said the arrival of Mr. Obama is proving an advantage in recruiting both because fear of being sent to Iraq is lessening and because the president is talking up government and military service.
"It is very helpful for our state-level and national leaders to speak to the significance of military service -- not just that we support the troops but that this is an honored profession and worthy service," said Maj. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick, commanding general, U.S. Army Recruiting Command.
Lt. Gen. Freakley said the evidence is anecdotal rather than statistical.
"Recruiters have told me that some parents are more supportive of military service now that we have had a change in administration," he said.