The Pentagon's Pitch to Parents

The Defense Dept. is launching an ad campaign aimed at persuading them to steer their children into signing up

By Alicia Henry

Even as U.S. soldiers continue to die in Iraq at a rate of slightly more than one a day, the Defense Dept. has launched an unlikely $1.7 million recruitment campaign. The target: parents who might be interested in encouraging their young adult children to sign up for military service. Over coming months, the effort will feature magazine and TV ads and public-service announcements. The message: Hey, Mom and Dad, help Uncle Sam. Prod Sissy and Junior to sign up.

Statistics highlight the effort's urgency. According to the Defense Dept.'s latest figures, roughly 1.5 million Americans were on active duty, as of June 30. That represents a vast decrease from 1968, when some 540,000 were deployed in Vietnam alone.

In addition, with the number of retiring veterans having risen fourfold from 1990 to 2000, fewer Americans now have direct family links to the armed forces. Granted, today's sophisticated weaponry lessens the need for overwhelmingly massive manpower, but the difference between then and now is striking -- especially at a time when U.S. military involvement in hot spots from the Balkans to Liberia and South Korea is on the rise.


  The ad campaign's success remains to be seen, as does its ability to strike a chord with a generation of parents who grew up in a time of antiwar protests and the civil-rights crusade. The Defense Dept.'s Joint Advertising, Market Research & Studies program (JAMRS) is heading the campaign. Since JAMRS is independent of the other military advertising offices -- those recruiting for the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard -- it has been free to target boomer parents rather than high school kids, the usual focus.

The campaign's genesis came partly from a 1999 Defense study, which determined that parents often play a vital role in steering their children's decisions about signing up. The Pentagon decided that parents' impressions of the military are not only transferable to their sons and daughters but critical in forming their children's attitudes.

Bob Garfield, columnist for, isn't surprised, pointing out that reaching children through their parents is nothing new. Ad campaigns encouraging family discussions about the dangers of illegal drugs have been around for years. "Most parents think that their child isn't going to listen to them," Garfield says, "but the truth is the most belligerent children deep down are going to listen." The military simply wants to exploit that dynamic, he notes.


  "We're trying to burn out old conceptions -- the idea that [the military] is not for my kid," says Air Force Major Joe Allegretti, JAMRS operations chief. The ads feature the personal experiences of five veterans as they talk about the benefits of signing up.

Take Valerie Vigoda, who was a National Guard lieutenant long before she began belting out tunes as the lead singer for the band Groove Lily. "The idea of going from a pretty uninformed person, which is the way I think that I was, to someone with more passion and a mission in life is what happened to me," Vigoda says in one of the ads. "I think the military had a lot to do with it."

Hundreds of veterans were interviewed before the ad campaign settled on its final five talking heads, says George Rogers, executive vice-president of Mullen, a Wenham (Mass.) public relations outfit handling the account. And the campaign was launched to coincide with the unveiling of an updated Web site, which uses a "one-stop shopping" approach in hopes of answering all the questions potential recruits and their parents might pose.


  Aiding the recruitment drive is a still-sluggish economy. Jobs are hard to find, and considerable resources have been devoted in recent years to make sure military careers offer lots of benefits and incentives, such as job training and subsidized college tuition.

At the same time, the ongoing action in Iraq also might be working to the Pentagon's advantage. "The military does have an advantage in recruiting during the war, and that's the adolescent sense of immortality," says Garfield. Contrary to what older generations might see as putting yourself in harm's way, some young people view a hitch as both an adventure and an opportunity -- especially in a weak job market.

The Pentagon wants to change public perceptions in these uncertain times, and some may regard using boomer parents as unofficial recruiting officers provocative, especially as U.S. casualties in Iraq grow.

Henry is an intern for BusinessWeek Online in the magazine's Washington bureau

Edited by Beth Belton

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