Recruiting ads make war look like sport I was born in 1950, scarcely five years after the close of World War II and on the threshold of what would turn out to be a bloody war in Korea. For American boys growing up in the 1950s, the flotsam of wars fought or just beginning was visible in virtually every household. Most of our dads were veterans, and their uniforms, battle ribbons and so-called "souvenirs" - from samurai swords to Nazi helmets - were stowed in hall closets and attics throughout the land. My Cub Scout group met in a VFW hall bedecked with captured Japanese and German flags. Pictures hung on the walls depicting heroic battles in places like Tarawa and Iwo Jima, Normandy and Bastogne. All of us had toy guns. Whenever we could, my friends and I put on our fathers" pistol belts and helmet liners and sallied forth to engage in our own version of house-to-house combat.
Looking back, it"s tempting to interpret post WWII America as a kind of massive military incubator. An observer could have been excused for believing that millions of American boys were being programmed to be soldiers and that recruitment would have been easy. It didn"t turn out that way - as we discovered when the time came to fight in Vietnam. For every young man who was drafted or volunteered, many more took whatever route they could to steer clear of the action. Finally, in 1973, the draft was abolished. We chose to rely instead on a volunteer military force. And on advertising to lure young men and women to the recruiting officer"s desk. Maybe it"s that the stakes have changed - stories of dot.com millionaires being bumped by war stories on the news - but it seems that military ad campaigns have grown increasingly urgent as the U.S. has begun to move more and more troops to trouble spots around the world. Not confined to television, the ads, jacked up to ear-splitting volume, have been a common feature in movie theaters for some time now. Two of the most ubiquitous campaigns are the "Army of One" ads by Leo Burnett USA in Chicago and the "Accelerate Your Life" series for the Navy by Detroit ad agency Campbell-Ewald. Both campaigns represent exercises in portraying dangerous and often traumatic experience as life-enhancing opportunity. My own force Where the Army once exhorted young couch potatoes to "Be all that you can be," it has now, thanks to Leo Burnett, adopted a more aggressive edge: industrial rock and roll wed to the military-industrial complex. This turns out to be a remarkably agreeable match. Music video editing and volume lend themselves to the high-energy rite of passage aura the Army wishes to project. Men - and women - in uniform, outfitted with impossibly elaborate digital watches, Madonna-style microphones (for calling in that air strike) and perfectly tailored camouflage make war look like X-treme sport. Yo! The German philosopher Freidrich Nietzche wrote that what doesn"t kill us makes us stronger. Leo Burnett"s creative team has spun that notion for the Army into something like this: Jumping out of airplanes and climbing mountains wearing incredibly high-tech gear makes us cooler. Shot in Boilermaker brown and black and gold, Burnett"s Army ads somehow manage to turn self-realization - the Army of One - into a team concept. "Even though I am a part of the strongest Army in the world, I am my own force," intones an electronically charged voice-over as we see a lone soldier climbing a glacial mountain. "Me and my team - every link in the chain is strong." In another Burnett spot, "Legions," we find a helmeted soldier directing an armored brigade in a desert scene. "Who I am has become better than who I was," narrates the soldier as he calls in a chopper. "The might of the U.S. Army doesn"t lie in numbers," the soldier says, "it lies in soldiers like me." Army as coming-of-age ritual is given a more reflective treatment in "Generations," a Ken Burns-like spot that emphasizes Army tradition. The spot opens with an autumnal shot of an American flag over a few well-chosen piano figures followed by sepia-tone portraits of soldiers intercut with newsreel footage: Gen. George Patton, WWI doughboys tossing their helmets in the air and other, assorted, images of troops serving in different wars, in different times. Following the shot of an old vet from "the Greatest Generation," a legend appears onscreen: "Every generation has its heroes," followed by the tagline: "This one is no different." There are, notably, no obvious references to Vietnam. This tip of the hat to the WWII generation echoes any number of post-Sept. 11 allusions that now, finally, another generation will have the chance to prove its mettle on the field of battle. This is, of course, a dicey maneuver, given the ads" goal of attracting recruits. Making the service look adventurous to post-adolescents is one thing, suggesting that getting killed can be part of the bargain is another. Needless to say, being killed in battle, much less an all too common service-related accident, as befell one poor sailor who rolled from his bunk and fatally cracked his skull en route to Afghanistan, doesn"t figure in these ads" imagery. On the contrary, while every soldier may represent an Army of One, it"s clear that there"s a wall of high technology between that Army and the enemy that"s all but impenetrable. Indeed, getting close to that gadgetry is part of the attraction. Experiencing the terror associated with battle is not. Blood sport Detroit firm Campbell-Ewald was doubtless thinking of living fast rather than dying young when they came up with their slogan for the Navy, "Accelerate Your Life." In this series of blue-hued 15- and 30-second spots, C-E manages to strike a pose that promises an experience both more edifying and more bellicose than the Army"s offerings. To begin with, each spot opens with a heavy metal riff topped by a worldly sounding African-American voice-over. In one spot featuring split-second images of a destroyer, a SEAL commando team, an air rescue specialist leaping from a helicopter and a scene in front of a control panel, we are asked, "Why should you consider getting an education in the Navy? This is one of your classrooms." Another spot featuring a commando team landing on a beach followed by the close-up of a man"s camouflaged face throws down a gauntlet: "If someone wrote a book about your life - would anyone want to read it?" Cut to sailor jumping from a helicopter. "Check out the life accelerator at NAVY.com." Like the Army, the Navy emphasizes adventure and character development in most of its ads. But its Spanish language spot takes a different tack. Here, instead of heavy metal we get choral music as we are introduced to Jose, a 25- year-old who is getting $50,000 for college by joining the Naval Reserve where, we are informed, he will find 50,000 opportunities. Only one spot dares to suggest that military service may be akin to a kind of blood sport. In a spot titled "Life, Liberty," we are shown a rapid-fire montage of images including the observation deck of an aircraft carrier in night-vision light and a submarine"s conning tower cutting through surf. "LIFE" is emblazoned across the screen, followed by "LIBERTY." After a beat: "And the pursuit of all those who threaten it," as we see a jet fighter take off from a carrier deck and fly straight for us. "Life, Liberty," with its explicit appetite for the hunt, comes closest to reflecting the Bush Administration"s assertion of the first strike prerogative. Now that the U.S. has, for the first time, reserved the right to attack first, this spot"s jingoistic tone seems less like macho fantasy than truth in advertising. If preemption becomes a standard tool of our foreign policy, it will be interesting to see how recruiting ads evolve to reflect this new, more dangerous reality. The time for playing soldiers is done.