From Catchy Commercials to Hollywood Think Tanks, the Evolution of Military Recruitment Ads

For as long as wars have been fought, wars have had to be sold. And just like with weapons technology, the United States government and its armed forces have long been on the cutting edge of propaganda. The emergence of broadcast television between World War II and the Vietnam War dramatically shifted the US public’s perception of the latter conflict, as the kinds of horrors and atrocities that could be hidden from newsreels were now seen live in people’s homes. But by the time the US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, its government had become much more canny about image management. The press was forbidden from showing images of military caskets from 1991 until 2009, and the proliferation of 24/7 cable news, social media, and even gaming has offered more ways than ever to bombard citizens with pro-war messaging.

“Be All You Can Be” was the Army’s recognizable slogan for over 20 years, set to an inescapable earworm by Jake Holmes (the original songwriter of “Dazed and Confused”). Since the Cold War gave way to the War on Terror, the Army has shuffled its image at an accelerated rate, running through a number of taglines: “Army of One,” “Army Strong,” “Warriors Wanted,” and most recently “Who’s Your Warrior?” That newest campaign seems to imply that the different career paths offered by enlistment are akin to choosing a character class in a video game. The military’s marketing arm has consistently experimented with new media, ranging from live “webcasts” from Iraq to the taxpayer-funded America’s Army game series to a controversial Twitch stream.

There is of course a long history of collaboration between Hollywood and the military. Major filmmakers like Frank Capra and John Huston produced propaganda films during World War II, and the Department of Defense is frequently involved in blockbuster production. Sometimes movies have literally served as recruitment ads; the Navy infamously set up tables outside screenings of Top Gun. This tendency toward cross-promotion has increased during the War on Terror, much like any other number of brands that produce tie-in content with blockbusters. A trailer for X-Men: First Class cuts between the Marvel characters and real soldiers in action. An Air Force ad tied in to Captain Marvel equates joining the military with a superhero “origin story.” The Zack Snyder-directed “Soldier of Steel” spots for Man of Steel suggest that you too can be Superman if you sign up for the National Guard. Blockbusters that have benefited directly from Pentagon approval and military resources, like Battleship, often showcase that involvement in behind-the-scenes featurettes that double as a tribute to the troops. 

Though military newsreels and documentaries from past eras were their own kind of advertising, the film industry began producing literal commercials for the military in the 21st century, repurposing the style of blockbusters and even anime. In 2007, the National Guard launched its “Citizen/Soldier” campaign with the eponymous single by Three Doors Down. The song’s hybrid music video / recruitment commercial was directed by Hollywood’s Antoine Fuqua and shown in movie theaters. Similarly, legendary multi-instrumentalist Mark Isham provided the theme music for the “Army Strong” campaign.

Where once the government used cinema as a mouthpiece, in the modern era, the film industry has increasingly shaped warfare. Shortly after 9/11, the Army assembled a stable of industry big shots at the University of Southern California to found the “Institute of Creative Technologies,” a think tank that explores the potential uses of machine learning, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and video game engines. Though the ICT’s research has expanded beyond warfare into healthcare and other technologically dependent industries, a Variety article from 2001 reports that originally its goal was “to brainstorm about possible terrorist targets and schemes in America and to offer solutions to those threats” and “advance the state of [immersive] training simulation for soldiers.” 

The initial group included a number of well-known motion picture jingoists, like Red Dawn director John Milius, Die Hard screenwriter Steven E. De Souza, and frequent Chuck Norris collaborator Joseph Zito. But there are several more unexpected names: David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Randal Kleiser of Grease, and Pet Sematary Two director Mary Lambert (likely because of her Corey-Haim-starring “interactive movie” Double Switch). The reasons given by those involved perfectly encapsulate the potent jingoism of the time. Production designer Ron Cobb distanced himself from President Bush, but claimed it was worthwhile to support “the plight of the Army, and its use in humanitarian roles, in Kosovo or Afghanistan, and the rising desire to use nonlethal weaponry.” Writer/director David Ayer said he “felt so hopeless” and “had to do something” after 9/11.

Eventually the institute was given an official home in a building designed by longtime Star Trek art director Herman Zimmerman. A Washington Post article from 2003 lays out the more absurd details of the early years of the ICT. Ideas proposed included “modular tanks that come apart for transport by plane and can be reassembled on arrival” and “Roman-style shields mounted on skateboards and stored on the sides of tanks, to be used to conceal a soldier crossing an urban street while under fire.” Cobb, whose storied career includes Alejandro Jodorowsky’s unmade Dune and creating a number of aliens in Star Wars, pitched an unmanned robotic “mule” to transport equipment for troops, similar to a concept which Boeing later put into development. Cobb had been recruited because officials were taken with his design for a “whispercraft” (a vehicle that can transform from a helicopter into an airplane) for the now-forgotten 2000 Schwarzenegger vehicle The 6th Day

The kind of military-sponsored new media developed by the ICT has a variety of purposes. As depicted in Harun Farocki’s installation Serious Games, virtual reality and immersive simulations hold promise for the treatment of PTSD. But some of their developments would be more directly applied to recruitment. For instance, the tactics-based game Full Spectrum Warrior is a training simulator that’s also been made available online for free. 

The ICT demonstrates how the military directly funds the development of new technology, but recruitment has also incidentally benefited from modern changes in film exhibition. Today the multiplex pre-show experience is synonymous with flashy branded content and talking heads, so it’s easy to forget that in the early 2000s, actual commercials playing before films was a controversial departure from the relatively unobtrusive slideshows of local business ads and movie trivia that traditionally greeted audiences. The first viewers of Regal Cinema’s “The 2wenty” balked not only at the noisy ads, but at one commercial in particular: Enduring Freedom: The Opening Chapter, which was a glorified trailer for the armed forces. Regal pulled the obvious agitprop after complaints, such as from “one mother concerned that her children had to see a passenger jet crashing into the World Trade Center before a showing of the G-rated Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie.” Before Enduring Freedom, director Klaus Obermeyer Jr. had produced extreme-sports-influenced commercials for brands like Chevy and Jeep. He had previously worked for the Marines on their high-adrenaline ad “The Climb.” That the military is just one client among a portfolio of companies shows how within this realm it is just another brand, in the same way recruiting ads sell enlistment as just another career path.

Contemporary military ads aimed at hyper-online audiences criticize the same platforms and devices they use to reach new recruits. The Marine Corps’ recent “Battle to Belong” campaign posits enlistment as a “real” alternative to the supposed humdrum virtual reality of everyday life. Though we are now exposed to more stimuli than ever before, it’s also easier to avoid single dominant narratives, which means recruiters have to shout louder to be heard. Last year, the Department of Defense began lobbying Congress to force streaming services to carry military ads. No matter how much you tune out propaganda, and no matter how the branding might change, the state will always find a way to get you to watch.

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