Ad Report Card

Uncle Sam Wants Your Parents …

 … to let you enlist.

The spot: An old guy and a young guy (the young one is wearing a military uniform) stand side by side on a porch. “You’re a changed man,” says the old guy. “How’s that?” asks the kid. “When you got off that train back there you did two things you’ve never done before—at least not at the same time. You shook my hand and you looked me square in the eye. Where’d that come from?” We cut to the U.S. Army logo. Then we cut again, this time to a slogan printed on the screen: “Help Them Find Their Strength.” (Click here for transcripts of all the ads in the series.)

The Army has a numbers problem. Enlistment rates are falling short of where they need to be, and some recruiters have gotten desperate. Time to revamp the marketing campaign.

Recruiting ads typically depict life in the military as a really fun first-person shooter game, one that happens to look good on a résumé. Recently, the “Army of One” spots showed off some of the awesome, adrenaline-pumping jobs that soldiers can have—mostly jobs that don’t involve being shot at.

But this new set of four ads (one of them is in Spanish) takes a quieter approach. Gone are all the choppers and night-vision goggles. They’ve been replaced by kitchen tables and conversations. This campaign seems aimed less at potential recruits than at their parents. And, sure enough, the press release describes the spots as “influencer-targeted.” Apparently, most kids won’t enlist until they’ve had a serious talk with Mom and Dad (or a teacher, or a coach). These ads are meant to make that talk go down easier.

Good luck. Who wants to let her son enlist when soldiers are getting killed every day? Throw in some burgeoning doubts about the war itself, and you’ve got a whole lot of parents with their heels dug in.

So, how does the Army assuage their concerns? It doesn’t. It just sidesteps the improvised explosive device in the middle of the room.

In one ad, a kid yammers on about the training he’ll get. In another, a son tells his mom that the Army will pay for college. OK, so what? We knew about these perks already. Job skills and money are a terrific lure in peacetime, but I don’t think they outweigh the fear of getting both arms blown off. Especially in a parent’s mind.

Much more interesting is the ad called “Two Things,” in which a man and (presumably) his son have a talk on their porch. This is by far the most gripping and cinematic of these spots. As a party murmurs on inside the house (no doubt welcoming the kid home from basic training or a tour of duty), the two men step outside for a heart-to-heart. Rain pours down beyond the edges of the porch roof. They lean on the railing, shoulder to shoulder. I love the tiny moment when the kid gulps as he realizes his father’s about to say something meaningful.

To me, the older guy looks like Mr. Middle America, with his denim jacket and his steely glint. He doesn’t seem too worried about the risk of bodily harm to his kid (never mind the moral underpinnings of the war). He’s far more interested in his son’s improved handshake etiquette. The Army will mold your boy into a stand-up guy with a manly bearing, the ad seems to say, and what could be more important than that?

It all comes together in the fascinating tag line: “Help them find their strength.” The Army has at last been repositioned as a finishing school. You’ve done the best you can, Mom and Dad, but it’s time let the service raise him right.

There’s also a message in here for the kids. That message is: Forget about your folks—your decision to enlist shows that you’re the real grown-up in the house. The ads suggest that if you sit down after dinner and calmly pull out some recruiting materials, your parents will retreat in stunned awe and realize that you’ve finally got your act together. They should be proud! As the black kid says to his mom: “It’s time for me to be the man.” (Cut to mom’s face, which visibly softens.)

Most other ads paid for by the government have very different goals. In PSAs about drugs, drunk driving, smoking, and teen sex, parents are unfailingly urged to shield their kids from danger. Here, they’re being asked to throw their kids right in harm’s way.

It’s a tougher sell.

Grade: C+. I feel for the ad guys. They need to confront parents’ fears—but there’s no way a recruitment campaign can talk openly about the risk to life and limb. That would be folly.

So, they went with a guilt trip. Will you stand in your boy’s way as he tries to find his strength? Or will you help him? It’s an interesting strategy, but I just don’t think it works. And I don’t know what would be better.

As an Army official said at a hearing last month, noting the recruitment shortfalls: “This is the first time in our history in which the nation has tested the All-Volunteer Force during a prolonged war.” They’ve already significantly upped their enlistment and retention bonuses. They’re running out of new incentives. My feeling is that the Army’s problems can’t be solved with an ad campaign.