Reaching 'Generation Kill': Army fails to battle new recruit reality

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The U.S. Army needs a few good ideas.

Its advertising account, worth about $200 million, is in review, and an online request for proposals briefs agencies that "The Army is busier than ever and at war." Therein lies the problem. For five years, the army has used the tagline "Army of One," but now observers say the slogan and the current TV campaign that pushes job skills and war gadgetry is out of touch with the reality of war and should be scrapped.

The Army needs to recruit 80,000 new soldiers next year, and the next ad campaign will be its most public tool.

"The Army has to be careful, because it really damages morale if they do a bait and switch," said Evan Wright, a Rolling Stone journalist and author of a harrowing account of being embedded with the Marine's First Reconnaissance Battalion in Iraq, "Generation Kill. "

The Army sells "kids on this idea of playing with really cool guns, machines, tanks, radios and computers, that they will have so much high technology they'll be an `Army of One."' But the dominant images of the war, said Mr. Wright, "are burning Army Humvees. In the field, the technology doesn't seem so cool." The Army unit Mr. Wright was assigned to while working as a Rolling Stone reporter in Afganistan "hated the `Army of One.' They were embarrassed by it."

A spokesman for the Army said it will keep "Army of One," created by current agency Publicis Groupe's Leo Burnett. "We will obviously be looking at a new contractor but there is no plan at this time, with metaphysical certitude, to do anything to change the logo, the theme of our advertising," said Army spokesman Paul Boyce.

But the Army campaign may be in danger of breaking the brand promise, one of the mortal sins of advertising. Last year, the Army broke away from the slick video game-like "Army of One" ads and began a series of spots, referred to as the "2400/7" series, that depict real-life potential recruits and soldiers. The ads drove viewers to the site where more reality Webisodes about real-life soldiering could be found. In 2001, a "Basic Training" TV campaign followed six recruits through boot camp.

reality series

"All of our advertising is based on real-life stories," said Colonel Thomas Nickerson, director-strategic outreach, U.S. Army accessions command. "If you look at our `2400/7' series, it demonstrates what soldiers are doing in their jobs. It's reality TV. We don't use actors. Our research tells us that these kids want to know what the deal is. They want to know what the experience is before they purchase it. They know there is a global war on terrorism and they know and expect that they may be called on to deploy. It's very hard not to know that if you are watching the news."

The Army is in the process of increasing its active duty population by another 30,000 soldiers, up from 482,400, according to the Army Times. To reach that goal, it will use a combination of recruiting and retention. Already the 2004 goal of 71,000 has been increased to 77,000, a mark the army is on track to hit by Sept. 30. The goal for next year is 80,000. The Army currently has about 503,000 people on active duty.

"Whoever picks up the Army's new account will have their work cut out for them," said Jim Tice, senior reporter for Gannett Co.'s Army Times. "Not only will they have to sell the service during a time of war, but also a time in which the Army is significantly increasing its size. So there are a lot of question marks and people are very antsy about this."

Conventional wisdom suggests it's easier to recruit for the armed forces during peacetime, when young men and women sign up for a few years of harmless duty to help pay for school tuition and to learn skills-and The Army of One played on that.

But war has its own appeal. "What is happening right now is that a lot of people who are coming into military service are thrilled by the idea of war," Mr. Tice said. "It's an adventure thing. The advertising is beginning to subtly reflect that. Certainly, going after college money is important. But less so over the past several years. They are still using the `Army of One' slogan and imagery, but people in the military don't talk about it much."

Mr. Wright's book describes a new breed of American youth raised on violent video games that now seek the great adrenaline rush of real life combat.

In "Generation Kill," a Marine colonel fresh from a heated battle in which he killed several "Hajji," gushes: "I was just thinking one thing when we drove into that ambush. `Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.' I felt like I was living it."

The Army has started to make use of video games in its promotional efforts, and is now selling called a game called "America's Army." "The fact that the Army is now selling a video game is perfect," Mr. Wright said. "Since video games are all about killing, it is basically saying `Play the ultimate video game, join the Army."'

The U.S. Marine Corps has always sold the idea of the thrill of battle; it has never offered the carrot of college tuition help and job skills in its recruitment drives. "The Marines have always been the warrior class of all the services," said Jay Cronin, managing director of WPP Group's J. Walter Thompson, Atlanta, which has handled the Marines account since 1946, and did pro-bono work for them before that. "All its advertising has always been true to that message. We have tweaked it, but we have not altered it."

`Honest' Approach

In the `70s the tagline was "The Marines are looking for a few good men." Today, it's more politically correct: "The Few. The Proud. The Marines." Recent additions to that message include, "For country" and "The change is forever."

"We will make you a Marine; it's a transformation promise," Mr. Cronin said. "We are more straight-forward about saying recruits will be trained to become the best and be warriors."

Mr. Wright noted that the Marine campaign resonated with the soldiers in Iraq. "The Marines that I spoke with in the field felt that the promise of their slogan that got them to join was fulfilled beyond expectations."

"We are not fooling anyone about what the expectations will be on the other side," said Major Mike Zeliff, Marines assistant chief of staff for marketing and public affairs. "The Marines are a lifetime commitment. ... It's about being very honest with people about the opportunity to be a Marine, and what our expectations are."

Work: For a gallery of armed-services advertising, turn to P. 30.

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