Marketing the Military: Should Soldiering Be Sold Like Soap?


This article originally appeared in Issue# 56

Since this article first appeared in Media&Values #39 "Militarism: The Media Connection," (Spring, 1987) the volunteer army--recruited through advertising and marketing programs like those described--has been to war. Although today's advertising programs may vary in message or detail, they still center on commercial marketing techniques. In the aftermath of the Gulf War, activist organizations have scored some successes in persuading local school boards to review campus recruiting programs and provide access for other voices. Several school districts are working to regulate recruiter access to students, but there are legislative proposals pending which would penalize these same school districts for these restrictions. As other young men and women ponder their futures, the implications of using advertising techniques to sell military service should continue to be evaluated.

On October 23, 1983, two days before the invasion of Grenada, young men watching football all over the United States were interrupted by the tragic news of a surprise terrorist attack that killed 240 U.S. Marines in Beirut.

The same football game also featured another kind of interruption--numerous paid commercials for the military services--Army, Navy, and Air Force as well as the Marines. The ads shown that day, and others like them, were carefully targeted to appeal to the dreams, aspirations and desire for adventure of potential recruits.

These appeals are bolstered by a substantial investment in reserve officer training programs for youngsters as young as 14, and an array of scholarships, incentive programs and special offers that sell the military as a viable career choice not only for young men but women as well.

Peacetime recruitment has always depended on a combination of incentives and images. But the ending of the draft and the institution of an all-volunteer Army combined with a Reagan-era military buildup has placed all recruiting eggs in the marketing basket. Expensive television time and slick advertisements have become a mainstay of the military's marketing program--to the tune of $200 million dollars annually, according to a survey in Advertising Age.

"…few other professional opportunities include the opportunity to continue your music education, travel and play first rate instruments with other first rate musicians... Army Band. Be All You Can Be."
— Ad from Downbeat magazine

Like any consumer campaign, the televised vignette or full-page magazine spread is only the linchpin of a complex distribution and marketing system. But military services have an advantage that purveyors of ordinary consumer products lack: They often come to young people with the authority and access provided by youngsters' community schools.

In several states, school districts must give lists of their graduating seniors to recruiters. As one anti-military activist puts it, "That gives them the chance to zero in on kids they want--the ones who scored well on the army's vocational tests." Indeed, one California mother remembers vividly the calls and literature received by her high-scoring daughter.

By the time a hypothetical high school senior's name is submitted, he--or she--has already been exposed to a number of possible contacts with the military. Advertisements in consumer media and specialized publications are only the first level of weaponry in the military's recruitment arsenal. The services' substantial recruitment budget, $1.7 billion in 1986-87, also pays for:

  • distribution of brochures and recruiting literature through local high schools;
  • "career day" presentations during which recruiters have a chance to pitch the military service to kids;
  • school endorsement of Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps programs that train youngsters in drills and procedures that help prepare them for college ROTC;
  • administration--during school hours--of the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) test which, although not mandatory, is offered by a large number of school districts nationwide. A survey, for example, showed that it was administered in 80 percent of Philadelphia-area high schools and at least 50 percent of those in New York City.

A more specialized military training ground, the military public school, has only penetrated a few communities in the South and Midwest. Presented as a form of a magnet school or enriched curriculum, such schools provide military training combined with the normal curriculum, aided by government support for materials, textbooks and some instruction. In Cincinnati, Ohio, such a proposed academy was voted down after a bitter campaign.

The level of participation in all these programs depends on the school district, but the military dollar is seen as a viable supplement to school systems faced with an eroding tax base, and cuts from federal and state educational funds--struggling to provide information on career options.

"It's not just a job, it's a flight exercise in Hawaii, the Caribbean and Hong Kong." — Navy advertisement

Outside of school, youngsters are exposed not only to the military's media campaign, but to a whole culture--from movies to video games--that glorify a war mentality and present military service as a glamorous proving ground for attaining maturity.

Creating the Mystique

Pressure to create the volunteer army was building just as the population of 18-year-old males decreased in the early 1980s. Nevertheless, the recruiting slump of the late 1970s was reversed by 1982. The effectiveness of military advertising and the strong recruitment network it supports deserves much of the credit.

Photographic imagery that sanctions the military status quo is easy to spot in any review of popular magazines, newspapers and recruitment materials. Appeals to members of racial and ethnic groups, who have fewer educational and employment options and thus find the military more attractive, are particularly evident.

For example, the "95 Bravo Military Police" Army recruitment advertisement appears in several black magazines, like Ebony, Essence, Jet and The National Leader. Part of the "Be All You Can Be" campaign, it features three men in camouflage uniforms behind machine guns in a wooded area. A black soldier smiles at the camera from the foreground. The soldiers' Darth Vader-type helmets, based on a new issue that appeared after the Grenada invasion, add to the scene's visual impact.

Army brochures focus on black soldiers' upper-level service jobs and usually picture them smiling. Similar ads are also oriented towards Latinos in publications ranging from Spanish-language newspapers to Hispanic Engineer.

Obviously, the campaign theme, "Be All You Can Be" is intended to suggest a bright future for enlistees. All too often, however, pictures of smiling GIs and copy promising a smooth transition "from high school to flight school" create false expectations for youths unaware of the racism inherent in the military command structure.

"We're not just a company, we're your country, we're the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.., a great place to start." — Recruiting slogan

The young man or woman visiting the recruiting office, however, is often responding to other pressures. Military ads and recruiting packages stress the long-term career goals, scholarship programs and specialized training, all designed to make enlistment appear to be the first step in an ambitious youngster's path to a stimulating and rewarding job following military service.

Do these ads promise more than the services deliver? Yes, according to many experts who point out that enlistees often do not get promised assignments while in the service and may not be able to apply narrow military skills to civilian jobs once they get out. In fact, according to a 1986 Wall Street Journal article, unemployment rates for veterans were higher than the norm, and studies showed that only a small number (12 percent for men and six percent for women) made any use of their military skills in civilian jobs.

"Recruiting ads often don't even meet the same standards for accuracy required of consumer ads," comments Tracy Westen, a professor at the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California and a former staff member at the Federal Trade Commission. "Yet because they benefit from the US government's credibility, people don't view them with the same skepticism as ordinary advertising. If anything, they ought to be held to a more demanding standard."

Instead, potential recruits are wooed by appeals to adventure, team spirit, manliness and athletic ability. One advertisement for the National Guard in the junior high school magazine Scholastic Scope, makes a fervent appeal to youngsters' desire for maturity. Placed against a background of national guardsmen out on bivouac, the ad exhorts them to "Kiss your momma goodbye, and make her proud she raised a man."

Although not as big a target, women are not ignored by recruiting literature, "Some of the best soldiers wear lipstick," runs one advertising slogan.

In an attempt to appeal to young athletes, ads also exploit the long-standing equation of military life with sports.

According to a 1978 Time magazine article: "The military has spent a good deal of money developing personality profiles of soldiers in an attempt to learn which recruits are likely to fight well, commit atrocities or stand up to enemy interrogation." One study showed that those who will be "fighters" tend to be sports-oriented, sarcastic and spontaneous.

Thus, recruitment advertisements portray helmeted men engaged in the same basic activities as football players, such as running, jumping and hitting the deck. Sports Illustrated carries army airborne recruitment ads encouraging weightlifters to sign up because they would have no problem carrying "an 80-pound backpack and a weapon."

Sales Techniques

Modern communications networks and computer tabulation of tests and profiles on potential recruits help the recruiter seeking to "close the sale." "The marketing terminology is apt," says Rick Jahnkow, a member of the board of directors of the Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities (Project YANO), an Encinitas, California, counter-recruitment organization.

"Recruiters are trained to close the sale," says Jahnkow. "A common selling technique they use is not to say 'Do you want to enlist?' but 'Which plan do you want?' " "We've also heard of recruiters visiting recruits at home, or picking them up to go sign paperwork. Recruiters hand out T-shirts, combs, even watches. It's very similar to any other sales program. You could even compare it to the kind of courting that goes on when colleges are recruiting star athletes." If young people are open to these appeals, it may be because they are hearing nothing else. Other voices are beginning to be raised, however.

The counter-recruitment effort centers on presenting additional facts about the military service lifestyle, so that the young person has a chance to think beyond the high-pressure pitch of recruiters and slick advertising gimmicks.

If recruitment relies on a world view that depends on hard-sell enticement, entrapment and ignorance, counter-recruitment must rely on a compassionate, intelligent reminder of what is lost in the recruiter's spiel. Even in the school system, the need for this other side is beginning to be recognized. The Chicago chapter of Clergy and Laity Concerned (CALC) won a controversial legal battle over the issue of providing equal access in the schools for peace alternative counselors.

More such battles need to be fought. Young people who enlist or resist should be given the advantage of making an informed decision based on a critical evaluation of what military life realistically has to offer. Consequently, pre-enlistment information and values clarification counseling needs to be available to youth so that service in the Armed Forces can be a positive experience based on truth rather than a fantasy based on flight from civilian unemployment, peer pressure, or war movie imagery. CALC and other organizations--Youth Against Militarism (YAM), Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities (YANO), American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), War Resister's League (WRL)--all have active programs, and can provide information for use in congregational, community and educational settings.

Ultimately, the preoccupation with arms is a preoccupation with death. Military service is more than a nine-to-five job; it's a lifestyle with a value system based on killing and death.

Although presented as lucrative and exciting, the ads that sell military service manage to ignore the horrors of war and the possibility of sacrificing life itself. People of faith who value peace and the affirmation of life must count the cost of a militaristic mindset--as well as the cost of silence as military expenditures rob the nation's poor of basic social services.

It should not be necessary to pick up a gun to stay alive, nor to wear a uniform to find meaning in life. But for many young people the only preparation for this decision is growing up in a violent culture that presents war as excitement, killing as manly and the world as an arena in which God fights on the side of the winning gladiators. When militarism becomes an idol and religious ethics are merged with military goals, military recruiting becomes a call to a holy war. We abhor the effect of such holy wars in other societies; we can't take it for granted in our own.

Author Bio: 

Rev. Daniel A. Buford is a Vice President of the MeikleJohn Civil Liberties Institute, Berkeley, California. He is a minister, sculptor, and playwright at the Allen Temple Baptist Church, Oakland, California. Daniel has served on the Board of Directors the of the Cincinnatti NAACP, Cincinnatti ACLU, and CCCO, San Francisco. A co-founder of the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond in New Orleans, Louisiana, he has conducted racism workshops in Japan, South Africa, and Puerto Rico. This article was condensed from a 1986 study, Counting the Costs, for the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA).