New slogan belies truth of the Army

Published Jan. 18, 2001|Updated Sept. 7, 2005

After 20 years, the Army is dropping its famous recruiting slogan, "Be all you can be." Guess which of the following is the new slogan:

(a) "One man, one Army."

(b) "An Army of one."

(c) "Your Army thinks you're the one."

(d) "One place for you is the Army."

The answer, of course, is (b).

"An Army of one" is an odd contradiction in terms, and it may be too mystifying to make anyone dash to the nearest enlistment center. But the Army has a problem. It missed its recruiting goals in three of the last six years, and barely met them in the other three.

The economic boom is a factor, draining off many potential recruits. But the real difficulty is the mind-set of the 18- to 24-year-olds targeted for enlistment ads. They think of soldiers as "nameless, faceless people in green uniforms crawling through mud," said an Army PR man.

The Army churned up a lot of research on young adults by the Rand Corp., Yankelovich Partners Inc., and McKinsey & Co. On the basis of the findings, many of them already well-known, the Army apparently concluded that the current generation of young people is so individualistic, so resistant to authority and rules, that it has to market military life as the natural home of the free-wheeling unfettered spirit.

Soldiers have to follow orders and work for group cohesion. They also have to risk getting shot at from time to time. Selling this to the young as the freedom of the independent self is no easy task. But the research was sobering. Even "Be all you can be" _ a Me Generation slogan entirely about self-actualization _ was widely perceived as too authoritarian. "Kids don't like it," said Ray DeThorne of Leo Burnett, the ad agency that produced the "Army of one" campaign. "They say it's the voice of their parents telling them what to do."

So the new campaign is scrubbed clean of any hint of regimentation and hierarchy, though words like "team" and "teammates" show up. J. Walker Smith of Yankelovich says: "The problem is how do you attract people who want to be free agents?" Answer: By selling a sort of implied and ambiguous free-agency within the Army. Research shows that young adults want to feel connected and want to be part of something bigger than themselves. But they don't want to yield their freedom. So authority figures are absent from the ads. Officers and orders apparently don't exist.

In the first TV ad, a soldier is seen running alone through a vast desert. "I am an army of one," he says. "Even though there are 1,045,690 soldiers just like me, I am my own force. . . . The might of the U.S. Army doesn't lie in numbers, it lies in me." In another spot, an "imagery group station operator" is presented as a sort of independent contractor, making his own decisions about dispatching Apache helicopters on the spot. A future one will feature a lone Hispanic-American soldier helping a child after an earthquake in a Latin America.

Bob Garfield, an ad critic for Advertising Age, has a different view: "It's a clever campaign, but substantially dishonest. The Army is not, never has been and never will be about one soldier. Individuality has absolutely nothing to do with Army life."

Normally, new Army TV ads are unfurled during the Super Bowl, but "An Army of one" debuted last week during the sitcom Friends and is scheduled to run on The Simpsons and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The announced reason is that these shows mostly attract the young, while the Super Bowl is watched by millions who are too old for the Army.

But there's another reason: The Super Bowl features macho males, while the Clinton administration has been working for a gender-fair, androgynous Army that seems to downplay aggressiveness and bravery as too macho. (Even weapons may carry a new stigma. So far, no soldier has been show carrying a gun in the "Army of One" ads.)

Meanwhile, the Marines, who have no trouble meeting their recruitment goals, keep stressing the old values. The Marines' current TV ad seems like the end of a video game. A man with a sword slays a monster made up entirely of fire and is rewarded by being turned into a Marine. But viewers have no doubt that the Marines demand struggle and readiness for combat, as opposed to nation-building or international social service. The Navy's new recruitment slogan is "Accelerate your life," which seems midway between the Army's self-centered vision of recruits and the Marines' straightforward account of what Marines do (they don't moon about their individualism; they fight).

One can sympathize with the Army's problem in reaching out to a very independent generation. But maybe a showing or two of Saving Private Ryan might have accompanied all that market research. At the heart of the movie's success was its vision of military culture based on leadership, sacrifice, unit cohesion, trust and faithfulness to duty. Or do we just think that the World War II generation was the last one that could possibly be interested in any of this?

John Leo is a syndicated columnist with the Universal Press Syndicate.