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

Toronto Star - - Buzz Advertisin­g Tv Awards -

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.

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