September 8th, 2008

Are the Army's New Marketing Tactics a Little too Kid-Friendly?

By Natalie Zmuda
Advertising Age

The U.S. Army is turning up in a lot of youthful places lately.

It has opened the Army Experience Center, including Humvee and helicopter simulators, near Dave & Buster’s and an indoor skate park in Philadelphia’s Franklin Mills Mall. The popular “America’s Army” online game counts more than 9 million registered users, and an updated game is scheduled for release in the coming year, according to the Army website. And at Sears Roebuck & Co., the First Infantry Division apparel collection, featuring Army-licensed insignias in sizes including boys,’ is slated to launch in October.

A sensitive conundrum
For most civilian companies facing a conundrum similar to the Army’s—a dwindling group of product loyalists and a public-perception problem—this might be considered smart, or even brilliant, marketing to attract new recruits to the brand. But in the case of the military, when you factor in easily influenced children, their parents and, oh yes, war, it becomes a lot more sensitive.

“It’s reasonable for anyone that’s a parent ... to be worried about the infusion of militaristic trappings into children’s culture,” said Robert Weissman, managing director of Commercial Alert. “It really has the potential to put the Army or any other branches of the military in the wrong position of marketing themselves directly to kids.”

Paul Boyce, an Army spokesman, said the Army’s overall marketing message has been consistent for some 30 years, and the current initiatives represent a desire to evolve with the times. “We are very careful to make certain we are reaching people who are of recruiting age,” he said. “These are wonderful introductions to young people ages 18 to 25, but at the same time, they’re not necessarily the stimulus behind recruiting. Ultimately, that is a decision that is best made by the aspiring recruit, the recruiter [and] the recruit’s family.”

The Army Experience Center, which opened Aug. 29, is a 14,500-square-foot educational facility that is the centerpiece of a program to test and evaluate new marketing strategies and is not a recruiting tool, he said. “It’s very much geared to show young people today what the U.S. Army is like in a very rich, immersive, educational and factual environment,” Mr. Boyce said. “And it’s also entertaining.”

Even so, Army equipment simulators and games in the Army Experience Center carry a minimum age for use of 13 years old. The “America’s Army” game is also rated T for Teen, meaning it has content that may be suitable for ages 13 and older. The sportswear collection includes a range of casual T-shirts, hooded sweatshirts, denim and outerwear bearing Army marks.

Selling clothes, not a culture
Bob McGuinness, president of All American Army Brand, which is manufacturing and selling the collection to Sears, said the company is selling a stylistically relevant collection, not Army culture. He said the collection does not include fatigues or mimic uniforms.

Critics of the Army’s new initiatives claim they are aimed at boosting recruiting figures that have been sliding as a result of the Iraq War. The military has struggled with recruiting in the past couple of years, said Leslie Cagan, national coordinator of United for Peace & Justice. “So they’ve revved up their recruitment operations, and part of that is, of course, advertising. This strikes me as just another form of advertising.”

Something seems to be working. The Army has rebounded since it missed its recruitment goal in 2005 for the first time in five years by 7,000 soldiers. In January 2006, the National Defense Authorization Act was signed, providing a variety of payments, benefits and incentives designed to boost recruiting and retention. Since then, the Army has steadily come back, beating its goal by 645 recruits in fiscal 2006 and 407 recruits in fiscal 2007. (According to the National Priorities Project, that success has come with a price, as the Army has been accepting more recruits who don’t have high-school diplomas. And the Army is issuing more moral, physical and medical waivers for new recruits.)

Attracting 80,000 recruits
Since 2004, the recruiting goal has been 80,000. Mr. Boyce said the Army has met its recruiting goals every month of this fiscal year, as well as in months prior to this year. “We have done that by continuing to evolve and change and refine our communications,” he said. “We’ve been looking at marketing carefully for a decade. ... We’re an all-volunteer organization, where we have to recruit more than 80,000 people every year, and we have a force of 1.1 million. That is not something that one does by the seat of the pants.”

Mr. Weissman said regardless of the educational nature of the Army’s new programs, they are still, at the core, branding exercises. “Even more with the Army Experience Center than with the clothing line, you see the glamorization and romanticism of the military in a context that is targeted at kids who don’t probably have broader vantage points to understand that complexity of military operations,” he said.

Mr. Boyce “strongly refutes” the notion that any of the Army’s initiatives glamorize war, adding that care is taken to avoid portraying violence. 

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