A new Army commercial launched last weekend evokes a familiar feeling for new soldiers and even most young people – anticipation, or even fear, of what’s to come.
On Nov. 4, the Army released “Jump,” the fourth commercial in its “First Steps” campaign, which features the moments before a soldier’s first parachute jump from a CH-47 Chinook helicopter.
The campaign, launched in August, tries to bring home the idea that “you’re not in it alone,” and “the Army will help you through those things,” said Laura DeFrancisco, spokesperson for the Army’s Enterprise Marketing Office, the service’s corporate advertising entity. “You see these soldiers doing these miraculous things and they’re like these true warriors. Well, they all started out at the beginning taking that first step.”
The audio for “Jump” (or “First Jump,” as it’s called on one Army channel) alternates between the snapping of the helicopter’s blades and the soldier’s deep breaths as he waits to step out into the sky, drifts to the ground and lays flat but smiling widely as his fellow troops surround him. “Your greatest victories are never achieved alone,” the narrator says.
But while the soldier lands with a smile on his face, the new commercial landed this week amid recruitment chatter focused on recent Army struggles in recruiting. A major report from a defense analyst firm took issue with how the Army spends its recruiting money, while the Pentagon’s second-ranking civilian official spoke about recruiting challenges. The Army expects to end fiscal year 2024 with nearly 55,000 new recruits which is 10,000 short of its original goal.
In a report released Monday, RAND Corporation researchers said that the Army should spend much more money on television ads and much less on paying bonuses to recruits as it faces one of its hardest recruitment environments in a generation. The report found that more spending on television advertising could produce nearly “ten times” the increase in recruiting interest that offering larger bonuses might.
“A large portion of bonuses are paid to recruits who would have been willing to join for a lower (or no) bonus amount,” researchers said. Their analysis recommended a 40% or $100 million reduction in money the Army gives to new recruits and an 80% or $22 million increase in TV ad spending.
TV advertising includes over-the-air broadcasts and cable TV as well as streaming platforms, which are really popular among younger generations, DeFrancisco said. Gen Z still watches live sports, but often on YouTube TV and other apps rather than traditional networks, she said, adding that the Army has partnerships with CBS Sports for SEC football and the NFL and with NBC for Sunday Night Football.
Speaking at D.C. think tank on the challenges of an all-volunteer force, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks said the military is facing recruiting hurdles that include the public’s waning trust in public institutions, a growing divide between the military and civilians, and losing talent to the private sector.
The DOD is looking harder at how it attracts folks who might not have a propensity towards the military, Hicks said. “We look at how we advertise, where we advertise, to whom we advertise. We do a lot of market analysis.”
Hicks did not directly address military services’ television or bonus spending but RAND’s pessimism on signing bonuses was shared by Army Secretary Christine Wormuth in October who said that recruiters found potential troops opted instead for their first-choice duty station.
In the fiscal 2024 budget, the DOD asked for a $40 million increase in advertising dollars.
The RAND report also found that the Army should consider shifting resources “modestly” toward more recruiters, in apparent opposition to the service’s push to develop a new MOS for Army recruiters. Military.com reported this week that over 1,000 soldiers had suddenly received last-minute orders to attend recruiter school, upending lives and careers.
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In order to recruit Gen Z, the generation born after 1996, Hicks said that the DOD has “seen the most success” with influencers, with service members in uniform describing a day in their life.
“Those are wildly popular because I think they’re looking for authenticity,” Hicks said.
DeFrancisco echoed a similar sentiment and said that their user-generated videos do very well. They also put out more polished and produced videos that still focus on a real look at Army life including one with real soldiers and recruits that gives audiences a real inside look at what really happens when recruits report on their first day.
“We have a soldier holding up the phone talking into their phone telling ‘This is why I joined the army and I’m an 11-Bravo and I love to do this, that, and the other’,” she said, “We create a little piece of content around that and those perform so much better.”
Another new Army advertising method is paid editorials in magazines like Glamour and GQ which hits a multitude of audiences and gives the Army an opportunity to share interesting stories, DeFrancisco said. The editorials differ from paid advertisements, she said. While a paid ad is controlled by advertisers, with paid editorials, “the editors and writers still have a say on what story is told and how they write it.”
RAND researchers also noted that digital and television advertising are geographically and demographically targeted which makes them a good way to experiment and collect data on their effectiveness on a smaller scale. The level of digital or television advertising for a specific marketing area could be varied and in turn, be less risky for the Army as it decides where to put its recruitment resources.
As the larger DOD tries to solve its recruitment problems, Hicks said the military is shifting to private sector methods like hiring a chief talent management officer and including travel benefits for family planning healthcare. The DOD is also deploying more resources and policies focused on behavioral health and sexual assault awareness, she said.
“The more we can work on prevention of one, it kind of has this secondary effect on others,” Hicks said. “Being a victim of sexual assault is itself a potential risk factor for suicide.”
The offices for special trial counsel will be up and running by December among all of the services.
With these new offices, Hicks said the DOD believes it “will help build back trust in the institution,” a problem she and others have identified as contributing to the recruitment crisis.
The DOD is also betting on family and quality of life policies and funding as a tool for retention, with 40% of the current fiscal year 2024 budget request going towards “taking care of our people.”
This includes a proposal for a 5.2% pay raise for troops, access to affordable childcare options, universal full-day pre-kindergarten at DOD installation schools, a federal requirement to recognize occupational licenses for military spouses in every state, and expanded eligibility for nutrition assistance.
“We are sending a strong signal that we’re listening and we’re moving to make progress wherever we can, for those who currently serve and to be more attractive to those who show a propensity to serve,” Hicks said. “Yet with a government shutdown looming once again, and the hold on promotions, we are robbing servicemembers and their families of one thing they deserve most and that is certainty.”
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