Does the Army ad miss the mark — or did Cruz’s tweet miss the point?

Last week, a tweet from Sen. Ted Cruz put a spotlight on one of the U.S. Army’s latest recruitment ads. The TikTok video the senator shared set the brightly animated ad against a more traditional recruitment ad for the Russian military, with Cruz opining that the U.S. was promoting a “woke, emasculated military” to the detriment of us all.

I wanted to look past the controversy over wokeness and inclusivity to ask a more basic question. The ad is not propaganda promoting the military to the public. It’s a recruitment piece — a sales pitch to a specific audience.

Who is the target audience — and who is not

The first question in marketing is, “Who’s my audience?” I’m assuming the Army is not trying to recruit middle-aged dads, so Cruz isn’t in the ad’s target market. It wasn’t designed to appeal to people like him. As such, I can pretty much ignore his tweet.

The video is the first of five in a campaign called “The Calling,” telling the stories of real soldiers in animated style. Maj. Gen. Alex Fink, chief of Army Enterprise Marketing, said the goal is to make the military more relatable to Gen Z.

“Research tells us that young people today see the Army as a ‘distant star’ — a place requiring a nearly superhuman level of discipline with little relevance to their daily lives,” Fink said. “Similarly, youth don’t necessarily connect with those who serve or see common ground in terms of interests, abilities, and goals.”

In the Russian half of the TikTok video Cruz tweeted, a stone-faced young man rises before dawn, parachutes from a plane, and fires a gun. Even without being able to understand the voiceover, the machismo is hard to miss. This is a “Full Metal Jacket” ad with undertones of “Rambo.”

That’s cool. The tone is in keeping with how many people think of soldiers. Now the million-dollar question — or $400 million, since that’s the Army’s approximate advertising budget — who does that tone appeal to?

I’d venture that style of messaging appeals to young men with an affinity for the military. They instinctively salute the flag. They grew up wearing camo and playing with Nerf guns. They may have been talking about joining the military since they learned to tie their shoes.

Great. Those guys will make great soldiers. But making an ad for them is a colossal waste of money.

That audience is going to join the military anyway. The only question for them is which branch. When they go to their high school career fairs, they make a beeline for the recruiter table.

There’s something to be said for plucking low-hanging fruit, but you don’t invest a significant amount of your marketing budget advertising to people who are already clamoring for what you have.

Tailoring messaging to the target

In contrast, the U.S. ad depicts a little girl who dances ballet and grows up to join a sorority — no machismo in sight. The video is animated in a bright style reminiscent of WB cartoons and tells the true story of Cpl. Emma Malonelord — raised by two moms, she graduated top of her class and went on to join a sorority at UC Davis. Malonelord’s voiceover describes longing to prove she is more than a sorority girl stereotype — an opportunity she found in the U.S. Army.

I’d say that video is aimed at young women with a progressive feminist mindset. The kind of audience that not only can’t relate to the young man in the Russian video, they may have crossed the street to avoid proximity to men with his vibe.

If the “Rambo” view is the only impression they have of the military, enlisting is an easy no.

When the Army announced the campaign, they made it clear expanding the applicant pool is a priority. After all, enlistments have been declining for decades. For a brief period in the early 2000s, the Army was forced to relax its standards for new recruits, accepting more marginally qualified applicants, to sometimes disastrous effect.

Whether the campaign is good, and whether it will work, remain to be seen. But it’s worth a shot. Preaching to the choir is not an efficient way to win more converts. The Army’s research showed their target audience finds their product unrelatable, unattainable, irrelevant to their lives. The new campaign is an effort to change that.

It will be interesting to follow the feedback the Army gets from its actual target audience. Three of the five soldiers featured in “The Calling” are women, and four of the five are people of color. From a strategic standpoint, it’s a smart move to show audiences who have a hard time picturing themselves in the armed forces faces and stories that look like theirs.

Really, my only concern is the stories’ animated packaging. It’s a pretty radical departure from the Army’s brand. But branding is a conversation for a different day.

When shifting messaging to appeal to a new audience, there is always the risk of alienating your core followers. In this case, I hardly think traditional G.I. Joes are going to skip enlisting because of what they see in this ad. The military’s influence on their core market is too strong to be shaken by a single campaign.

If the campaign is successful, those G.I. Joes will find themselves having to work with fellow soldiers whose backgrounds look a lot different from theirs.

Dana Herra is a U.S.-based copywriter and marketing consultant. She specializes in helping small and medium businesses find and use their unique point of view. See more at danaherra.com.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.

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Dana Herra is a copywriter and marketing consultant. She specializes in helping small and medium businesses find and use their unique voice. www.danaherra.com.

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Dana Herra

Dana Herra

Dana Herra is a copywriter and marketing consultant. She specializes in helping small and medium businesses find and use their unique voice. www.danaherra.com.

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