DND revs recruitment ads
REVEILLE Try the real deal, new Canadian Forces ads suggest to young snipers proud of Halo 2 scores. By Christian Cotroneo
Armchair admirals, couch commandos and living room lieutenants, lay down your game pads. And try a rifle on for size. That’s the message some marketing experts are getting from Canadian Forces’ latest commercial aimed at potential recruits.
“It’s using a kind of video-game imagery,” says Brad Davis, a marketing professor at Wilfrid Laurier University. “It’s a huge entertainment pastime for that group, so it would be quite natural to use that sort of technology.”
The commercial, unveiled nationally on Oct. 9, features soldiers in conflict situations, rescuing hostages, flying in helicopters with guns bristling and clambering down the narrow alleys of foreign locales. The gritty scenes and pulsing soundtrack are accompanied by the words: “Fight fear. Fight distress. Fight chaos. Fight with the Canadian Forces.” The underlying message may be even more simple: Fight for real.
“If you’re targeting, typically, a male 17-to-25 demographic, they play a lot of video games,” Davis explains. “When you try and speak their language, they identify with that. You’re probably also trying to tap into the emotion that group experiences with video games — the adrenalin rush, the challenge, that kind of thing.”
The commercial, and a sequel airing now, are remarkable not only for their appeal to Generation PlayStation, but for their unflinching verve in depicting Canadians in serious action.
The ad spots are also noteworthy, says University of Toronto professor Garry Leonard, for what they don’t show.
“The slogan ‘fight fear, distress, chaos’ neatly sidesteps any concerns about the ‘rightness’ of a mission,” says Leonard, an English professor who studies advertising, “It concentrates on teamwork, camaraderie and competence.
“The shots of bombs and burning cars do hint at a faceless, nameless enemy with no political motivation —‘evil,’ if you will. This fits the emotional melodramatics of a video game where the villains deserve to die, end of story.”
But Keith Thirgood, creative director at Markham-based Capstone Communications, sees not so much a call to video gamers, but a slick, well-produced call to anyone looking for meaning in life.
“This is the first time our army has presented itself, probably since the (world) wars, as a viable place to go for youth who want to make a difference,” he says.
Thirgood, who is also president of the Association of Independent Consultants, applauds the commercials as a major step forward from the typical recruitment campaign of the 1990s, which was “squeaky clean and all about getting a job.”
“It wasn’t terribly appealing,” he says. “There was nothing gripping about it.”
Whereas the current Canadian Forces campaign is right on target, he says, for a young person who “feels there’s got to be more to life than going and joining an industry or going to work for a business.
“This is more about ‘let’s put things back to right. Let’s go out and make a difference.’ ”
The Department of National Defence, which spent about $3 million last year to research, produce and test the two commercials, is certainly doing something right.
Despite the fact that Canadians are seeing and reading almost daily reports of our soldiers dying in Afghanistan — the most casualties the nation has seen in wartime since the Korean War — recruitment is brisk and brisker.
Over the fiscal year that ended in March 2006, Canadian Forces had targeted to attract 5,500 recruits. Instead about 5,900 people signed up. This time, the target has been raised to 6,400 and about halfway along, is well within sight, says Capt. Holly Brown, a public affairs officer for Canadian Forces.
“Don’t underestimate the patriotism of young Canadians,” Brown says. “I don’t know if it’s the increased exposure that the forces is getting because of this (Afghan) operation, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be hurting us in the recruitment area.”
Young people “want to be a part of something bigger than just themselves,” she says. “It’s a life with a purpose.”
While the military is technically open to anyone from 17 to 57, Brown admits that “it’s a young person’s business. The younger you start, the better.”
And what better way to reach out than through the language of video games?
More than seven out of 10 Canadian households own a video game console or computer capable of playing games. The vast majority of players are males and a full third are under the age of 18.
In the United States, the military has long understood the power of video games as a recruitment tool. In 2004, the U.S. Army followed that path to a logical conclusion and produced its own video game. The action shooter, entitled America’s Army, was such a success with teenagers, the army hosted a tournament in New York City that year.
Recruiters, naturally, were waiting outside. Then again, why spend the time and money to develop a video game promoting military values when game designers are already doing it for you?
Since the early days of GI Joe and Combat, they’ve catered to a lucrative niche of young people willing to don a virtual rifle and fight for freedom. Technological leaps have ratcheted up the realism over the years, with the weapons, goons and gore becoming ever more lifelike.
Of course, soldiers aren’t always fighting terrorists, rescuing hostages and airlifting forest fire victims. In the best-selling classic Return to Castle Wolfenstein, for example, gamers wage war against Nazis and, ultimately, undead soldiers. Quake, another profitable franchise, takes the fight to hell itself. In Halo, the enemy is a race of ferocious aliens — all essentially rifle fodder for the cyborg super-soldier at the game’s heart, Master Chief. Released in 2001, Halo sold 5 million copies worldwide as the best-selling Xbox title of all time — until the sequel came along. Introduced in November 2004, Halo 2 became a cultural phenomenon, with fans clogging video game shops hours before the game went on sale. It has sold close to 7.5 million copies.
All those gaming hours invested by youth to hone their trigger fingers — why not give them a push to reach for the next level?
“Let’s face it,” says Tom Thompson, president of the Mackenzie Institute think-tank that studies organized violence and political instability. “There are an awful lot of kids sitting in those chairs playing games like that and going, ‘I can do this for real.’ That might attract some of them . . . until they find out how much all that gear actually bloody well weighs.”
At the very least, the commercial is pushing, even pounding, the buttons of youth.
“The reality is (young people) want some excitement. They want to do something hard, something interesting and something dangerous,” Thompson says. “It was a truism in the army that if a reserve unit was holding a weekend of class training, say, they’d have attendance problems.
“But if they were going out in the muck and rain to run around and shoot things, everyone would be there.” The Canadian Forces commercials were produced with feedback from a young test audience every step of the way — and that audience, says the commercial’s producer, wanted to see war in all its grit.
“What people told us in the research was, ‘Show us what the reality is,’ ” says Jennifer Hubbard, director of marketing and advertising for the Department of National Defence, who produced the commercial as part of the department’s $15.5-million annual advertising budget.
She said the test audience was saying, “We know what you do. But we want to see it in your ads. That’s what will motivate us to come knocking at your door.”
It may be unclear whether the commercial was inspired by video games, or video games inspired the commercial, but there’s one thing that needs to be very clear: the division between real and simulated war. “A video game is a game,” warns Brad Davis at Wilfrid Laurier. “And you’re recruiting people for a profession that could get them killed.”
Attracting young people in the door is one thing, he said. But recruiters should then deal in realism to send a clear message “that they’re not sending them off to play video games for a living.”
Dramatic images, no dialogue and a persuasive drumbeat are elements of Canadian Forces ad spots.