Thursday, 11 January 2018

The New Army Recruitment Advert

There's been much outcry over the new army recruitment advert, so I thought as something different I'd give it a watch and relate my first impressions.

Caveat Emptor, I'm a civilian who has never been swayed by the prior recruitment adverts, largely on account of the principle that I do not like being told what to do, when or how. I cannot over state how important this principle is to me and how much of a deterring factor it has been over the years (I'm not a libertarian/free marketeer by accident). I'm also in my thirties, so I suspect I'm quite a way off from being the army's target audience for this advert.

That said, my first instinct on watching it was how depressing it was. The art style, sound and use of dull, drab colours made the army look like some sort of dystopian nightmare organisation. All throughout I couldn't help but think of the movie version of 1984 and images of Stalinist propaganda posters. It was bizarre beyond belief. There was very little in the advert that would have given away that it was for army recruitment if you removed the voice overs, which is always a bad sign for marketing.

By the end I couldn't help but think that I wasn't the target market for the product on sale. I'm not gay, I'm not religious and I'm not a woman. Rather than demonstrating that the army is inclusive of these groups along with everyone else, by focusing so heavily on these themes the advert gave off the impression that this was the target of current recruitment and that anyone not meeting the criteria need not apply. The section on "can I be emotional in the army?" felt particularly out of place, as I'm not sure as anyone really sees the army as being a factory for producing emotionless drones. If anything, TV shows, movies, documentaries and the like have conditioned us to assume that soldiers care deeply about the people around them and are greatly moved by their loss. Again, the word I would use is bizarre.

Finally the advert seems to have committed the same two sins that virtually every army recruitment TV ad in history seems to commit; it doesn't offer a clear incentive (the most heinous of marketing sins) and it doesn't understand the real world outside of its own bubble.

The first of those is the most important. Adverts are a pitch, an opportunity to sell something to an audience. It's why car adverts try to sell you not just on the price and financing options but also try to convince you how much fun their car is to drive, how economical it is, how reliable it is, how much space it has, how safe it is, or how it can keep the kids quiet on long journeys. Adverts for razor blades understandably focus on how close of a shave they can offer without physically slicing off a layer of skin. Insurance adverts tell you how cheap they are, what great coverage they can provide and what extra services they can offer you when the worst happens.

Marketing is all about explaining your unique selling point. Whether its a tangible gain such as a closer shave or a cheaper car, or whether it's something more abstract like the peace of mind that comes from knowing that your loved ones will be taken care of should you be killed a falling chimney, every advert tries to explain some kind of benefit that can be derived from taking up their offer of a product or service. The army - by comparison - seems oddly reluctant to explain any kind of benefit that might actually be derived from joining it.

The one point that they have tried to consistently hammer home over the years is where the second factor (the army bubble) comes into play. The army seems oddly obsessed with the idea of people joining the army to make friends, as if they're under the impression that the rest of society sits at home each night with a takeaway and a boxed set, and that people avoid any kind of human contact if at all possible, as if the whole world were some enlarged version of the London Underground. 

The reality is that most people meet a lot of their very good, lasting friends through work. It's also odd that the army would adopt this angle as its main pitch point given that it generally is seeking to recruit young people fresh out of education, most of whom will have a group of friends that they've known for years and have many good memories with. While the nature of the bonds that service personnel form is undoubtedly something very different from what most of us experience in our lives, the army seems blithely unaware that its supposed USP is nothing of the sort.

Given all the benefits that can be derived from the army, not least for someone whose future career prospects out of school seem somewhat limited, the army approaches its recruitment programs in an incredibly timid way. It seems absolutely loathed to tell anyone what benefits it can offer, as if it's afraid Conservative MPs will find out and cut them. There's no mention of subsidies or bursaries, rates of pay or career progression, pensions or health care. Nor does it seem inclined to explain to people that they're not going to spend 9 months of every year stuck in a tent in some foreign country.

All in all, I came away less than impressed. That might actually be a good thing, as the caveat at the beginning explained. I don't pretend to understand how to connect with young people any more than my parents understood me when I was that age. But to me that advert doesn't seem at first glance like its going to have throngs of people signing up for the service. Indeed it made the army seem like a bleak organisation that was cynically trying to shake off a reputation of stifling tradition, bureaucracy, exclusion, bullying and institutional malpractice.


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