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The Army's Musical Pitch: Download, Join Up

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Army National Guard has been hoping to bend young Americans' ears to a recruiting pitch by giving them something else to listen to first.

The Guard has been targeting 18-to-25-year-olds in online ads that promise three free iTunes music downloads to anyone who agrees to be contacted by a military recruiter.

After three months, more than 770 people have downloaded, although it is too early to tell how many of them will join up, said Lt. Col. Mike Jones, deputy division chief for National Guard recruiting.

The promotion ends Saturday, and officials will study whether the $20,000 budgeted for the campaign was worth it. "Ultimately the goal is not leads but enlistments," Jones said. "At the end of the day, what I'm trying to produce is a soldier that's capable to serve at home and abroad."

These are challenging times for military recruiters. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and deployments to hurricane-stricken areas in the United States have resulted in the activation of tens of thousands of National Guard troops. Many have been killed. It is the rare recruit who believes that his National Guard commitment will be limited to one weekend of training a month and two weeks out of the year.

At the same time, reaching potential recruits has gotten harder. With the proliferation of cable TV channels and the growth of the Internet, simply running television ads during college football games and on full-page spreads in Sports Illustrated can be costly and incomprehensive ways to get the message to the desired audience.

In contrast, ads for the Guard's iTunes promotion are less expensive and have run on hundreds of Web sites frequented by young people. (Music.com, Billboard.com and the Web site for Fry's Electronics are examples.) Each download costs the government between 90 cents and a dollar, Jones said. That's much cheaper than more traditional giveaways of hats and T-shirts, which can cost $3 per item plus delivery charges.

"My responsibility is to get the best bang for the buck out of what we are entrusted with," Jones said.

Potential recruits cannot download songs that contain messages of violence toward women or other groups, but there are no restrictions based on the artists' politics, Jones said. The songs of Kanye West and the Dixie Chicks are just as accessible as those of Kid Rock. "That's their right. That's why I serve," Jones said. "They have a right to express their views and make money, and kids have a right to listen to it."

Jones said that the traditional appeal to young Americans' sense of patriotism is still a powerful recruiting pitch, but getting their attention requires novel approaches.

"I hope that we one day live in a world where we can just put the flag out and say, 'Follow me down to the recruitment center,' " he said. "But right now it's not the exclusive thing we can do. . . . This is just something to break through the clutter."

-- Christopher Lee

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