Overlooked Air Force Launches Ads

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By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 25, 2008

The public faces of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been almost exclusively those of troops in Army and Marine Corps uniforms, whose efforts attract widespread attention -- positive and negative -- for those services.

Often lost in the discussion is the U.S. Air Force, which flies above them, gathering intelligence, attacking targets, providing transportation and securing the skies, its officials say.

The publicity gap may be about to change a bit. The Air Force is launching a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign this week to reinvigorate America's love for fighter jets and high technology, and to highlight the service's wartime activity.

The campaign is designed to reverse losses at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill for billions of dollars to buy new aircraft and advanced technology, as well as provide a boost for recruiting. The Air Force plans to spend $26 million this year and $55 million next year to better compete with the other armed services for America's admiration.

Its "Above All" campaign began on yesterday morning's talk shows on ABC, CBS and NBC, and will include print and online advertising.

"The program seeks to change a mind-set by educating the American public on how today's Air Force is the most engaged, versatile and high-tech of all military services," the Air Force wrote in fiscal 2009 budget request documents, first described by the Air Force Times last week.

"Without the funding, the ability to educate the American public about Air Force roles and mission will be limited and ultimately [create] a gap between the public and the Air Force that will influence public opinion and the Air Force's ability to maintain its stature amongst the other services."

Keith Lebling, the Air Force's chief of marketing and branding, said last week that focus groups and surveys have found a disconnect between what people think about the Air Force and what it does to defend the country. Though there are 25,000 airmen deployed overseas in support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and more than 250 daily Air Force flight operations, much of it goes unnoticed, even as aerial bombing has increased substantially in both countries over the past few years, he said.

Col. Michael G. Caldwell, an Air Force spokesman, said the service wants to ensure that potential recruits and their "influencers" -- such as parents, coaches and teachers -- understand that the Air Force is an option. He said the service hopes to direct people to its Web site to highlight its role in "dominating air space and cyberspace."

Such a message comes as the Air Force scuffles with the Defense Department over its request for more F-22 fighter jets -- an aircraft that, as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates recently emphasized to Congress, has never flown a mission in support of the war in Iraq -- and new C-17 cargo planes.

Air Force officials also recently have written about the service's exclusion from the nation's counterinsurgency policy, with Maj. Gen. Charles J. Dunlap Jr., deputy judge advocate general, writing that the nation is thinking too much about "boots on the ground" in combat and not enough about the potential of air power.

While the price tag of the advertising effort is high, the Air Force says it is emulating Army advertising efforts that are far more expensive. The "Army Strong" campaign, which aims to attract troops in one of the most difficult recruiting environments in history, was slated to cost $1.35 billion over five years when it was awarded in 2006. According to the Army, the campaign has a $240 million price tag in fiscal 2008, nearly 10 times what the Air Force will spend this year on "Above All."

"Advertising is one major way that we have to reach young people today," said Paul Boyce, an Army spokesman.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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