Influx of ads for military weapons throwing commuters for loop

WALL TO WALL: The Navy Yard Metro station is covered in ads for Lockheed Martin projects that could bring the company and its partners $35 billion or more over the coming decades.
WALL TO WALL: The Navy Yard Metro station is covered in ads for Lockheed Martin projects that could bring the company and its partners $35 billion or more over the coming decades. (Dayna Smith For The Washington Post)
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 25, 2010

In the market for a shiny new combat ship? If so, you might be interested in the ads appearing in Metro stations around Washington. "The shape of littoral dominance has a familiar look," Lockheed Martin says over a photo of a sleek naval vessel cutting the waves.

Or how about a nice attack helicopter? Boeing may have just the thing. In a full-page ad in the Hill newspaper, it brags that its AH-64D Apache "is the most powerful and effective combat helicopter in the world."

Tanker planes, light tactical vehicles, jet fighters -- you won't see this kind of hardware advertised in Kansas City or Cleveland, or in Moscow or Beijing. Only in Washington are multibillion-dollar war machines marketed like soft drinks and cellphones. These days, the products of the military-industrial complex are appearing in can't-miss-'em ads in The Washington Post, in Capitol Hill publications such as Roll Call and the Hill, on posters and billboards in Metro stations and even on local radio.

The ads are seen by many but are intended for just a few. With two of the largest defense contracts ever on the verge of being decided, the targets are the several hundred -- and in some cases, several dozen -- people who determine how billions of federal defense dollars will be spent. That means people in Congress, the White House and the Pentagon, as well as a fringe of "influencers" working in think tanks, trade organizations and the media.

Everyone else just seems mystified.

Commuters, for example, seem puzzled by the ads appearing throughout Metro's Navy Yard Station. Lockheed has turned the station into a veritable Six Flags Over the Pentagon, plastering it with posters and billboards promoting its work on projects like the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), APY-9 airborne surveillance radar and MH-60R naval helicopter. Eyeing one such ad, Garrett Preisch, an administrator for a defense firm, says he's stumped. "I'm not really sure what the purpose is," he says. "I think most people come through here and see this stuff and it has no effect on them."

A half-dozen others give similar responses. Finally, Kyle Lemmermen, 23, an associate engineer with a Navy contractor, gets the point: "They're trying to win a big contract," he said, offering a short tutorial on the bidding for the Navy's LCS. But Lemmermen says, "I'm not sure why they're telling commuters about it."

Defense contractors say their ads are designed to reinforce the pitches and detailed proposals they've already made to decision makers. "The 'why' is pretty simple," says Boeing spokesman Bill Barksdale. "It's to provide factual information to our primary audience. . . . Advertising allows us to go to our core audience at all levels."

Erin Dick, a spokeswoman for jet-engine maker Pratt & Whitney, calls her company's radio and print ads "a big hammer for a little target. But we think it's the right hammer."

Making the odd 'normal'

But even if you don't sit on a House or Senate subcommittee, the ads may still be working on you in subtle ways. Repeated exposure to an advertising message has a cumulative effect, slowly shaping attitudes over time, says Angela Lee, a professor of marketing at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management. "The more you're exposed to it in your environment, the more you're internalizing the message," she says. "You start to take it for granted that this is normal."

In other words, heroic images of the latest firepower may contribute to a generally positive climate for military contractors and Pentagon spending in Washington -- a point that isn't lost on antiwar activists. "This absolutely isn't a fair fight," says Dennis Lane, executive director of Veterans for Peace, an organization that promotes alternatives to militarism. "The defense industry has the money to shout louder than anyone, and it just keeps pushing for more. It's a self-perpetuating cycle. It just keeps going and going."

While there's no authoritative estimate of how much contractors spend promoting their products and services, the number easily runs into the tens of millions of dollars annually. Just about any publication with a following on Capitol Hill or at the Pentagon -- from The Post to Aviation News to Navy Times -- shares in the bounty. The ad category is so rich that it helps support a one-of-a-kind radio station in Washington, WFED (1500 AM), which targets federal employees.

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