Recruit ads urge parents to let

kids go--into Army

By Jason George, Chicago Tribune staff reporter
Published August 13, 2005

 

An Army TV campaign hopes to win over skeptical moms and dads in time of war.

When Americans met their finger-pointing Uncle Sam during World War I, advertising became a linchpin of military recruiting almost overnight. Now with U.S. soldiers fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and recruiters struggling to sign up enlistees, the Army has added a new pitch.

The Army is no longer just an "Army of One," it's looking for a few good parents.

A new series of television ads aims to get parents to "Help them find their strength" and not stand in the way of their children signing up. One commercial begins with a teenager telling his mother he has found a way to pay for his college education. When he reveals that the answer is the military, she becomes skeptical.

"Go on," she says cautiously.

"I already checked them out," he says, trying to dissolve her disapproving glare. "And I can get training in about any field I want.

"And besides, it's time for me to be the man."

Satisfied, she smiles. "OK, tell me more."

With the Army unlikely to meet its annual recruiting goals this fiscal year, such scenes taking place at kitchen tables across the U.S. would be welcome music to military brass. This ad, titled "Dinner Conversation," is one of four the Army is running thousands of times this summer that targets parents who are increasingly wary of having their children in the armed forces during wartime.

All the ads show young men in discussions with parents who are skeptical of the Army's benefits--an often true-to-life situation, according to Army officials who say individuals with influence such as parents, teachers and coaches are now 10 percent less likely to recommend military service than in the past.

A Department of Defense survey last November found that only about 1 in 4 parents would recommend military service to their children.

The ads, collectively known at the Army as the Influencer group, were created by Chicago-based advertising agency Leo Burnett USA, and began running in April. Since then, the Army has tripled their visibility. The ads will run nationwide approximately 4,000 times from July until September.

"We vastly increased our media buy to support this campaign and to encourage an informed dialogue between parents and prospects," said Louise Eaton, chief of the media and Web branch within the Army's Accession Command.

Focus groups and Army recruiters told Leo Burnett USA's ad team that parents and other influencers still play an important role in the decision to enlist, said Ray DeThorne, the executive vice president at Leo Burnett USA in charge of the Army's account.

"I think that when we're at war, it magnifies what the ultimate cost of war could be," he said.

"It's a big decision--the minimum you can enlist is 15 months. We at least want the parent to be willing to listen to that conversation."

Leo Burnett USA, which began advertising for the Army in 2000, is operating on two temporary contracts this year totaling about $350 million. The amount spent to buy airtime is proprietary information, said Eaton.

The Army announced this week that Leo Burnett USA and at least five other companies will have a chance to compete for a two-year contract with up to three one-year renewals.

Scheduled to begin in September, the contract could be worth more than $1 billion and is considered to be the biggest government advertising contract ever.

Three of the Army's new Influencer ads are in English and one is in Spanish. In addition to the "Dinner Conversations" spot with an African-American mother and son, the two other English-language ads feature white fathers and sons; one is for the Army and the other for the Army Reserve. In one, a misty-eyed father tells his son that when he picked him up earlier that day at the train station, the son shook his hand and looked him in the eye. "Where did that come from?" the father asks.

The son, in an Army dress uniform, simply smiles back.

DeThorne said the idea for that spot came from recruiters who say parents often recount such an exchange.

All of the commercials end with the text: "Help them find their strength."

There is no print advertising companion to the TV ads but the Army's recruiting Web site, www.goarmy.com, has videos and articles on actual military families in its For Parents section. Parents describe how they came to support the son or daughter's decision to enlist, and the fears and pride of having a child in the armed forces.

Targeting parents on such a scale is a relatively new phenomenon in the Army, said Allan Millett, professor of military history at Ohio State University.

"I think it was always implicit, the `Let us have a functioning hand in forming your kid,"' he said. "And when you are trying to recruit 17- and 18-year-olds ... obviously the parents are getting involved as well."

Douglas Rushkoff, a communications professor at New York University, said targeting influential bystanders instead of the purchaser--or the prospective soldier in this case--has an established history.

"The auto companies were targeting mini-vans at 6- to 10-year-olds," he said, with the strategy that if a mini-van can make kids happy and quiet, parents will be more likely to buy the vehicle.

In the Influencer ads, the motivation, he said, is to make parents feel they are being successful in raising their children.

"It's like you want to protect this child but you are stopping him from being who he wants to be," said Rushkoff, who is the author of "Coercion: Why We Listen to What `They' Say."

"It's something very primal about your kid growing up. They're trying to teach parents to let go."

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