By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
The Army, facing another tough recruiting season, launched a $200 million-a-year advertising campaign this month and unveiled a new slogan: "Army Strong."
The campaign's core message is that the Army builds not only physical but also mental and emotional strength in recruits, bonding them into a powerful, close-knit team.
"There's strong, and then there's Army strong," a deep male voice intones as martial music rises from a brass band in the background.
The television ads, launched nationwide for Veterans Day along with Internet placements and other outreach, omit all but the most fleeting images related to the all-volunteer Army's biggest endeavor ever: the war in Iraq.
The main 30- and 60-second ads show soldiers jogging in formation, scaling a rope obstacle course and leaping out of a helicopter -- all take place in what appear to be familiar, grassy, domestic settings. The only brief glimpse of what could possibly be Iraq is of a group of soldiers hastily raising a tent -- although, unlike others in the ad, these soldiers wear no helmets or body armor.
There are obvious reasons the Army might not want to underscore to potential recruits, and their parents, that signing up these days almost inevitably means deployment to combat zones in Afghanistan or Iraq, where the majority of the more than 2,850 killed and 21,000 wounded have been soldiers.
The Army missed its fiscal 2005 recruiting target by more than 6,000 soldiers but rebounded last year with the aid of thousands of added recruiters, a doubling of the maximum enlistment bonus to $40,000 and some eased standards. The Army begins fiscal 2007 with another hefty target of 80,000 recruits and only about 15 percent already in the pipeline -- compared with a goal of 25 to 30 percent.
Army officials acknowledge that parents and other influential adults are less likely to recommend military service today because of the ongoing conflicts, and surveys have shown that the wars have made some young people more wary of enlisting.
To address these concerns, two of the ads feature the parents of soldiers -- a farming couple and a mechanic and his wife -- whose worries about Army service evolve into pride. "I was pretty nervous, apprehensive," says the father, wearing a 1st Infantry Division cap and standing beside a cornfield.
"If your son or daughter wants to talk with you about joining the Army, listen. You made them strong, we'll make them Army strong," the announcer says in the English and Spanish ads launched on MTV, the History Channel, the Discovery Channel and other stations.
The television ads are coupled with Internet recruiting initiatives aimed at helping youths do their own research, including a presence on YouTube, Google, Yahoo and MySpace. Last Friday, the campaign expanded to offer potential recruits an "Ask a Soldier" discussion forum at GoArmy.com.
New York advertising firm McCann Erickson designed the campaign after winning the two-year Army contract, which can be renewed for three additional years.
The ads were tested on hundreds of soldiers, although studies show that it is difficult for the military to gain an accurate measure of the effectiveness of advertising, which is relatively expensive compared with other recruiting tools such as educational benefits and bonuses.
Asked how they felt about the "Army Strong" pitch, soldiers at the Pentagon had mixed reactions. "I like it because it gives a better picture of what the Army is," said Lt. Col. Wayne Cherry, a liaison officer for the Army's chief of staff. " 'Army Strong' is like a football team, a baseball team."
Sgt. 1st Class Mark Johnson was less enthusiastic. " 'Army Strong' is not telling me anything. It doesn't touch any emotional string," he said. "I don't think it will inspire people."
While soldiers were still formulating opinions on the new slogan, several held strong views about past ditties such as the nebulous "Army of One," which survived only five years until being replaced by "Army Strong."
"The 'Army of One' got lost in translation," quipped Col. David Reese, director for ministry initiatives of the Army's chief of chaplains. "I like 'Army Strong' because it symbolizes cohesiveness."
By far the most popular recent slogan, according to soldiers interviewed, was "Be All You Can Be," which lasted 20 years until a recruiting downturn saw it changed in 2001.
"To me, 'Army Strong' is kind of faddish. I've always liked 'Be All You Can Be' -- I missed that," said Lt. Col. Stephen Durham, a logistician.
" 'Be All You Can Be' could have gone on forever. It's such an evergreen thing," another Army official said wistfully.