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Recruitment Ads: New Strategies, New Messages

By Staff Sgt. Alicia K. Borlik, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 31, 1999 – Match the following phrases to their products:

Be All That You Can Be.

Let the Journey Begin.

Aim High.

The Few. The Proud. The ... .

If you answered the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, you're right. If you were clueless, you might be in the military's target recruit audience of 18- to 24-year-olds. Therein lies the problem.

For decades, the services have depended on advertising and word of mouth to send their message to potential recruits. But lately, that audience just doesn't get it.

"Aim High" started with a low audience recognition rate that's fallen two percentage points per year since 1994 -- only 17 people out of every 100 surveyed can identify it as the Air Force ad slogan. That fact, coupled with the possibility the Air Force may miss its annual recruiting goal for the first time in almost 20 years, caused the service to buy its first TV air time Feb. 27, said Maj. Jeffrey B. Bowles, Air Force recruitment advertising chief.

Previously, Air Force television advertising consisted solely of whatever stations gave it in free public service announcement time. As of Feb. 28, it was 1,046 airmen behind the pace to reach its annual target.

"Advertising is an imperative for the Air Force Recruiting Service," Bowles said. "It helps us work to stem negative trends in Air Force advertising recall, slogan recognition and, ultimately, enlistment propensity."

The other services are also reinvesting in the power of television advertising through new campaigns costing a total of about $268 million. The Army received the most, $95 million, mainly because the largest of the military services missed last year's recruiting goal by 800 and already 3,600 recruits behind the pace this year. The Air Force received $76 million, which includes $37 million to kick-start fiscal 2000 efforts.

Due to a good economy, low unemployment and more job opportunities for high school graduates, recruiting is more challenging now than it was earlier this decade, said Air Force Col. James R. Holaday, deputy director for accession policy in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Force Management Policy. Recruits were once plentiful, but no longer. Now it's a matter of restarting what recruiting commands stopped doing when life was easy, he added.

"We essentially stopped advertising because we were doing well. We learned that's the wrong thing to do," Holaday said. "We also learned that when we're not doing well, we can't expect a lot of advertising to immediately help us out.

"We've learned advertising is very important. We can prove it works and prove the more we advertise the higher the quality of recruit we attract. It's a matter of sticking with it on the long run," Holaday noted.

Advertising may be important, but even more crucial is what the ad says. To develop an accurate message, each service needs to know what appeals to its intended audience, Holaday explained. Each service works with its own ad agency to target its niche market.

The Marine Corps has a very tight niche. They know what they're selling and they know who's buying. They sell being Marines, and they've been very successful at it.

"We have a very fine target. It's clearly defined," said Marine Gunnery Sgt. Cynthia Atwood of the Marine Corps Recruiting Command. "We're selling intangibles. Yes, we offer [educational and enlistment] incentives like everybody else, but you couldn't be a Marine if that's all you came in for.

"The kids we're selling to today are post Generation X," Atwood explained. "They want to be led and have a chance to lead. They want pride in belonging to something bigger than themselves, and they want to be challenged."

The Corps' newest ad, "Rite of Passage," uses a larger-than-life mythical creature to represent a challenge. Past ads have potential Marines navigating a difficult maze. "Our advertising message is awareness. Ads are meant to illustrate an individual meeting a challenge to become a Marine," Atwood said.

Raising awareness is No. 1 for Army advertisements also. Ads are key components of the overall Army recruiting effort, said Army Recruiting Command spokesman Doug Smith.

According to him, the Army's message has changed from one focusing on individuals to a campaign showcasing the opportunities and experiences available in the Army. New ads put a fresh face to "Be All You Can Be" by highlighting high-tech training, money for college and enlistment bonuses.

The Navy recently changed its ads' focus because of a study by its ad agency. Findings indicated a need to concentrate on what Navy life is really like in addition to the benefits of service, according to Navy recruiting officials.

Two new recruiting videos focus on the benefits of training and education at sea and ashore, preparation for the future, travel and adventure, teamwork, and quality of life leisure activities such as e-mail at sea and family support. The ads feature real sailors describing Navy life in their own words.

Though the services' messages and individual ads differ, the ways and means of getting them out are similar. After all, the services target the same young people. The services place ads during prime-time TV shows featuring young adults or during televised sporting events. Open up a magazine aimed at teens and young adults and you may well find a recruiting ad.

The Internet has proven a highly successful tool for reaching potential recruits, according to service recruiting officials. Each service has its own recruiting Web site. Visit the Army at www.goarmy.com, the Navy at www.navy.com or www.navyjobs.com, the Air Force at www.airforce.com, and the Marines at www.marines.com.

The services buy banner ads on other Web sites frequented by target youth to lead them to their recruiting sites. All service sites report significant results. Navy recruiting officials, for instance, say the Internet attracted more than 1,000 new recruits this year. The Marines claim their Internet site generates one recruit per 20 leads.

Not only are the sites getting people to join, but those who contact the services through the Internet tend to be very high quality recruits, said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Steven Hein, acting director of Joint Advertising and Market Research for the Defense Manpower Data Center.

"Advertising helps us create an image out there with a massive reach," Hein said. "It's cost-effective. We're able to get the message to a lot of people and a lot cheaper than sending a recruiter to visit homes." In fact, ads are normally the services' first contact with prospects. Services use ads to trigger military interest as well as do a little pre-selling so "our prospects know more about what they might be getting into," he added.

Advertising and recruiters -- the services' sales people -- are the two necessary components to successful recruiting, Holaday said. "Any business that sells something -- and that's what we're doing -- needs sales people and advertising. If you don't have those things or one of them is lacking, you're not going to sell your product very well."

To see examples of the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps television recruiting ads, visit the links below.

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