Art & Commerce: Consumer Republic

How do you pitch the Army in the age of individualism?
When the U.S. Army found it had fallen short of its recruitment goal by 8 percent in fiscal 1999, it did what a lot of clients do: It put its account in review.
A few days after Young & Rubicam learned the Army was not renewing its contract, we gained insight into why the military branch was not making its numbers.
A study released last week by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a private think tank, concluded that the armed forces are in crisis, facing “potentially serious rifts in the fabric of its culture.” Their personnel–56 percent of whom are now married, compared to 36 percent in 1973, when the draft ended–are buffeted by the same pressures that dual-earner families face in civilian life. But their immediate benefits are scant: Pay sucks. Support services stink.
Add a post-Cold War military deployment policy that is determined by moral rather than strategic imperative and an endless supply of evil in the world, and one finds fewer troops supported by less money who are doing more.
Yet as grim a picture as the study paints, it only hints at the larger branding challenge the Army faces. One can hardly imagine an institution as hopelessly out of sync with the ethos of the Consumer Republic as the military. At a time of high employment and record college enrollment, a job that takes an act of Congress to get a raise is not attractive.
Plus, the Army is hierarchical, regimented and one-size-fits-all. It not only discourages breaking the rules; one can get court-martialed for it.
Of course, there are legitimate reasons for this. But in a culture in which businesses seek to be “horizontal” and practice management by chaos theory, in which all consumers assume an unalienable right to go their own way and become their own bosses, the military is the deadest of ends.
One can only imagine the bonfire of draft cards that would be set by Generation Y should the government ever consider putting conscription between them and stock options in an Internet startup. A draft is, in fact, unthinkable. Enter the Army’s new marketing team.
One of the expected casualties of the Army’s new initiative is that old soldier of a slogan, “Be all that you can be.” Coined by N.W. Ayer in the late ’70s, it’s sure to linger in the public mind as the Army’s de facto tagline long after it disappears from its advertising.
Nevertheless, it is showing its age. A brilliant post-Vietnam distillation of the Me Decade mood, the tag is too hard sell now. Indeed, over the last two decades, recruitment ads have gone over the top promising every kind of self-fulfillment: education, college tuition, job training and all the thrills and chills of an amusement park.
Get real. Even Disney World would have trouble meeting these expectations. A young generation famous for its Star Wars defense shield against commercial hype and false promises isn’t biting.
Surely the Army could profit from the example of other current ads aimed at young eyeballs. For example, the mess hall is fertile ground for any number of gross-out jokes, while farts in the barracks after lights-out suggest endless creative possibilities.
That spot featuring gerbils being shot out of a cannon is a natural for the Army, too. As for the slogan, the Army’s next agency might try slipping in the word “hey,” as in, “The Army: Hey, somebody’s gotta do it.”
Failing that, the Army could always fall back on the evergreen of insouciant selling–something like, “Armored personnel carriers and other cool stuff.” Finally, there’s the surefire repositioning tool of changing the name to something more relevant and sexy, such as
Should none of this work, the Army might focus on a useful bit of information culled from the private study’s 125 focus groups. According to the research, significant numbers of respondents, however low their overall morale, still feel proud to serve and sacrifice for their country. In short, despite the countermand of the culture at large, a lot of military people do believe in military values.
So why not go for something along the lines of “Think different”? Though “be an individual” is a hoary hook and usually applied in bad faith, there is nothing so dishonest as promising individuality through mass behavior.
The funny thing is, as a pitch for the 21st-century Army, embattled citadel of hierarchy, conformity and rules, that phony overused line would be both honest and true. In the Army, they march to the beat of a different drummer. K