Uncle Sam Wants You In The Worst Way

The Army is boosting its marketing and trying new tacks to close a recruiting gap

John Burns thought he would be in Baghdad or Basra by now, perched in a Humvee gun turret. Burns was "juiced" to join up after the 2001 terrorist attacks. But when a friend of his older brother returned from two tours in Iraq and described in gruesome detail "the absolute hell" over there, Burns balked. His parents were decidedly cool on the idea, too. So Burns signed up for community college in Paterson, N.J., instead. Says the 19-year-old, second-year business student: "It was the right decision for me. Besides, I'm not sold that Iraq is the place to fight terrorism."

With an insurgency raging in Iraq and casualties rising, the U.S. Army faces one of the toughest marketing challenges around. Turned off by an increasingly unpopular war, thousands of young men and women who might typically have joined the military to get an education, jump-start their careers, or simply to defend their country are standing down. As a result, when the Army completes fiscal 2005 on Sept. 30, it is expected to be 7,000 short of its 80,000-person recruiting goal.

The shortfall has prompted top brass to pump in millions of extra marketing dollars and to rethink how they go about convincing young Americans -- and increasingly, their parents -- that the benefits of enlisting outweigh the risks. "We've been recruiting during an armed conflict," says Ray DeThorne, executive vice-president of Leo Burnett, the Army's advertising agency. "It's a complicated sale."


The army acknowledges its traditional approach -- paeans to patriotism and machismo, and selling military service as a career booster -- is no longer enough. And it's not just the rising body count. Wary parents have laid down some withering fire of their own. "Many grew up during the Vietnam War and have different ideas about the military than the grandparents of today's recruits," says chief recruiting marketer Colonel Thomas Nickerson.

So how does the Army change attitudes and get recruitment back on track? Throw a lot of money at the problem, for one. The Army will spend about $320 million next fiscal year on recruitment marketing, up from $240 million this year and $200 million in fiscal 2004. That's $4,000 per recruit if they sign up 80,000 next year -- or more than twice what Toyota Motor Corp. (TM ) spends to attract a new customer.

A major shift in message is also under way. While some TV ads continue to push patriotism and adventure, a chunk of the budget increase is going in to ads whose real target is the parents. One, for example, features a mother reading a letter to her kid's commanding officer about how the Army brought out the best in her son.

At the same time, the Army is keenly aware that TV is a less effective medium than it once was. So, more spending is going to public-relations efforts. In one key initiative, the Army is gearing up this fall for a series of 15 televised town hall meetings in which carefully selected soldiers will tell positive stories about military accomplishments in Iraq and Afghanistan and answer questions. Nickerson says that the town hall audiences won't be prescreened -- a risky strategy since anyone could sound off about the war.

Like every advertiser these days, the Army is also struggling to cut through all the clutter to reach 18- to 24-year-olds. It is increasingly turning to product placement or other ways of ensuring a favorable portrayal. On the Discovery Channel's Monster Garage, a show about customizing cars, host Jesse James worked with Army mechanics to trick out a Jeep. And in next year's ESPN reality show Bound For Glory: The Montour Spartans, former football star Dick Butkus will try to turn around a high school football team with the help of a real retired Army drill sergeant.

With polls showing that a majority of Americans have turned against the war, the Army's marketing corps can expect to see plenty of action.

By David Kiley in New York

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