Short answer: probably, but it’s hard to prove!
In November 2015, Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake published a report titled, Tackling Paid Patriotism: A Joint Oversight Report. It detailed how the Department of Defense had signed marketing contracts with professional sports teams worth millions of dollars annually. These contracts gave the military the ability to perform public relations stunts at sporting events in front of a captive audience of tens of thousands of people. These stunts included on-field swearings in, national anthem performances, military fly-overs, color guards, and other self-congratulatory practices by the military. In total, the Department of Defense spent a self-reported $53 million on advertising at sporting events from 2012 and 2015.
As the report states, “Some of what was contracted appears to be legitimate marketing and advertising activities for which we would expect DoD to compensate these teams, such as stadium signs, social media mentions, and booth space for recruiters at games.” Additionally, the report recognizes the importance of such campaigns “to gain access to potential recruits or community influencers like coaches, teachers, counselors and administrators.” But many of the contracts looked at by the senators were much less above-board in their intent. Passed off as a patriotic act by the sports franchise in question, these actions were really more a star-spangled marketing scheme with no disclaimer that they were actually taxpayer funded exhibitions.
Here, TBP will investigate whether any of those illegitimately used funds were spent in a way that targets the most vulnerable sections of society: the poor, people of color, the young, the undereducated, and those otherwise disenfranchised. This article might be significant for two reasons: subject matter and method. The former should be self-apparent, and continues a debate that goes back to when the Armed Forces shifted to an All-Volunteer Force (AVF) under President Nixon, surrounding the ethics of marketing serving in the Armed Forces the same way you would any other product. As Gates Commission member and DuPont President Crawford Greenwalt said, “There is something immoral in seducing people to die for their country.” It seems especially unjust to put this risky burden inordinately on the members of society that are already the most vulnerable. Secondly, this article addresses an issue that has not received enough attention from sports critics. In fact, though others have been written on the practice of military advertising, and they will be discussed later, this article will be one of the first to use regression analysis to look at Armed Forces advertising strategy.
The goal here is to look at how these funds were allocated to see if this guerilla marketing campaign was in any way targeted at any of America’s more vulnerable populations. This idea came from noticing that the largest contract reported, one for $879,000, was with the Atlanta Falcons, a franchise located in a city notable both for its large black population and large impoverished communities.
“There is something immoral in seducing people to die for their country.”
It is an established fact that the Armed Forces have in the past used targeted advertisements to reach the section of the population they most need, 16–21 year-old men. In 1988, the Army put together a report on the media habits of this demographic, using thousands of phone interviews to capture what television shows were most popular among young men, and how that changed based off of race and whether or not they graduated from high school or college. Statistically significant differences were found between them, and the authors believed that the paper could “contribute to the selection of programs for the Army’s minority recruitment advertising efforts.”
There is not yet an extensive field of research on this topic, but the subject of targeted advertisements by the Armed Forces has been the subject of some academic scrutiny, mostly at the dissertation level. As one of those papers wrote, “There is a startling lack of research on the effects of military advertising, which is unsettling when considering the substantial amount of money and resources dedicated to creating advertising campaigns.” Most available research comes from the marketing and communications fields, looking at how the Army’s message has shifted from one ad campaign to the next. One article, a dissertation from within the Army War College itself, looked at US Army branding in comparison to how traditional firms like IBM, Coca-Cola, or Harley-Davidson brand themselves. It concluded in glowing terms that the branding and advertising campaigns that the Army ran were every bit as sophisticated as other corporations. It noted how one successful campaign had, in 2001, caused toll-free calls to Army recruiters to increase “70% over the same week the previous year, and Web site visits 547% compared to the same week the prior year (2000) and an unbelievable 964% from 1999. Though the article does not explicitly mention race or socioeconomic factors of the recipients of these marketing messages, it does touch on the subject in code, saying “Just as soldiers wouldn’t take the hill without a battle plan, strategic leaders need a plan that focuses specific messages toward specific audiences (cultural elites, those who are rationally ignorant, etc.) to achieve desired results.” This suggests the author considered it important that the US Army keep those factors in mind when designing marketing and branding campaigns.
Another study, this one in 2011, compared the previous three big Army recruiting campaigns that had arisen since the shift from a draft system to an All-Volunteer Force. These were the “Be All You Can Be” campaign that aired during the 1980s and 1990s, the “Army of One” campaign that started in the early 2000s, and the current “Army Strong” campaign. The study found that in each sequential marketing campaign, black soldiers were not only portrayed more often, but more positively as well. Black members of the military are featured twice as often in the “Army Strong” campaign as they are in the earlier “Army of One” campaign, and 44% of the appearances of black soldiers “show an African American man featured in his own shot, or receiving or displaying some kind of honor,” a radical departure from their invariably anonymous and secondary role in the previous two campaigns.
A third study, this one the most recent from 2012, illuminates the history of Army marketing. During the shift to an All-Volunteer Force, the Army first realized they would have to advertise for the first time, a new concept for them. Their research “determined the majority of enlistees would be from rural areas and low socio-economic backgrounds, in addition to being less educated and young.” Because this demographic also spent a relatively large amount of time in front of the television, it was decided that was the form the advertisements would take. The study goes on to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of different branches of the military advertising both separately and together. Finally, it looks at how military commercials impact people’s “war attitude.” The study concluded that “controlling for other demographic factors, political cynicism, weekly news media consumption, and gender were significant determinants of war attitudes.” Additionally, political orientation turned out to be “also statistically significant and individuals affiliated with the Republican Party had a .31 more positive attitude regarding war on a scale of 5.” The study conversely concluded that increasing the volume of advertising did in fact significantly increase negative attitudes about war in college students.
According to data published by the Armed Forces, putting more emphasis on blacks and African Americans in recruiting campaigns seems to be paying dividends. Whereas they make up 12.85% of the nation’s population as a whole according to the 2010 census, as of the year 2013 they accounted for 18.5% of the men enlisted in the Armed Forces. In the Army, blacks and African Americans make up a whopping 22.8% of the enlisted soldiers, overrepresented by almost double. They are overrepresented in the Armed Forces Reserve as well, making up 15.8% of the members.