Ad Report Card: Selling the Army

Few new advertising campaigns make the front page of the New York Times, but I suppose the U.S. Army isn’t just any ad client. Besides, the big spin is that the Army is re-branding itself with its new “Army of One” slogan to make it seem, the Times archly summarized, like “an incubator of self-actualization,” which will “appeal to individualistic youth.” The Army fell short of its recruiting goals in 1998 and 1999 and last year dropped its longtime ad agency, Young & Rubicam, and hired Leo Burnett U.S.A. The goal, apparently, is to find a way to connect with a supposedly new species of extra-selfish young people. Not surprisingly, these solipsists are believed to be fans of Friends, and it was during this past Thursday’s episode of that tiresome sitcom that the Army of One campaign was launched. (You can see that ad at the Army’s new recruiting Web site, using either Quicktime or RealPlayer.) So does this new marketing effort live up to the hype?

The debut ad: We open with shots of the desert and the sound of a guy panting. Ah, there he is: dashing through the Mojave, under the weight of a large pack. “I am an Army of one,” runs the voiceover. “Even though there are 1,045,690 soldiers just like me, I am my own force. With technology, with training, with support, who I am has become better than who I was.” A military vehicle, other soldiers, and a helicopter pass by as the camera angles shift. “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 strength.” From a close-up of our strapping soldier we cut to the newly redesigned Army logo and then to the words “Discover Your Strength,” against a black background.

What’s new? It’s true: The spot is offering up self-improvement as a selling point. But so what? While the Army of One slogan is an easy target, self-improvement doesn’t strike me as being a motivation that deserves knee-jerk mockery. I’m sympathetic to those who would think twice about a career in the military, but certainly it’s not unusual for people who have served to feel that they are better individuals for it. And despite all the exasperation about the Army pandering to today’s allegedly more-selfish-than-ever young people, recall that for well over a decade its main ad slogan has been “Be all you can be”–which doesn’t exactly sound like an appeal to patriotism or self-sacrifice. In fact, after all the hubbub, perhaps the most notable thing about this ad is that it doesn’t seem like a radical break from the past at all. As it has for years, the Army is selling itself as a place that offers opportunities (in training, in life experience, etc.) to individuals. Yes, there is apparently a shift in when the ads will run (more MTV, fewer sporting events). But the soldier in this one isn’t sitting around wallowing in a Real World-style rap session about what kind of person he is–he’s running through the desert.

The grade: If there had been no advance buzz and this debut spot closed with the old slogan, my guess is that no one would have noticed anything new here at all. In fact, it’s hard to give the ad anything better than a C-plus not because it’s bad, but it doesn’t seem to do much to address the problems laid out in an Army-sponsored marketing study released last summer. One issue, we are told, was a sort of “cultural divide,” which perhaps will be addressed as future ads roll out showing more actual soldiers from different backgrounds. Another problem is said to be the perception that soldiers are prevented from dating or having free time. I’m not sure that there is any good way for the Army to deal with that in a TV commercial (no matter how entertaining it would be to see an ad featuring some real soldiers whoring and drinking on R&R).

And in the end, the biggest factor affecting recruiting may well be the economy. It turns out that the Army actually met its goal in 2000 (which was higher than its targets in the previous two years), and if this year shapes up to be as economically gloomy as the conventional wisdom suggests, plenty of people may conclude that an “Army of One” is all they can be.