Since the last draftee reported for duty in December 1972, Uncle Sam has had to hustle to staff an all-volunteer armed force. In the case of the U.S. Army, that meant recruiting 80,000 new soldiers every year—essentially replacing more than the entire workforce of BellSouth every 12 months.
Advertising did the trick initially. After "Today's Army Wants to Join You" fizzled, in January 1981, "Be All You Can Be" became the battle cry. For two decades, wrapped around ads that made this branch look as adventurous as an Outward Bound course, it resonated with 17- 24-year-olds (of whom the Army is the nation's largest employer).
Then, in 2001, that was scuttled for an "Army of One." ("Even though there are 1,045,690 soldiers just like me, I am my own force...") Critics scoffed that the new tin slogan was misguided (isn't conformity more valued than individuality in the barracks?); the Army countered that it was effective.
Then Iraq exploded.
Despite adding thousands of additional recruiters, upping the enlistment bonus and funding for college, fattening the ad budget, and ratcheting up the patriotic appeal, the Army could not fill its boots.
So the Army added more marketing weaponry. It hosted town hall meetings where civilians could meet soldiers and hear about their accomplishments. It tried product placement: Army mechanics on the Discovery Channel's Monster Garage tricked out a Jeep. And it launched a thoroughly engaging computer videogame that quickly became a gold standard of "advergames" for its effectiveness and realism. Gamers take such real military roles as Intelligence (18F), Engineer (18C), Communications (18E), and Combat Medic (18D) and fire the same weapons the Army has. And when they fire on the run, their aim is less accurate.
Before it was released on July 4, 2002, many expected the $7.3 million game would join the ranks of the $436 hammer and $640 toilet seat as a study of excess. Few predicted "America's Army" would become the artillery's most effective marketing tool, conveying the authentic military experience in a voice that prospective recruits want to hear.
More than seven million users have registered (anonymously so as to squelch any fear of recruiter harangues), with 10,000 to 50,000 new ones downloading the shoot-em-up daily. In a dozen running and gunning missions, players advance through the stages of soldierhood—drilling in basic training, target practicing with an M-16, learning about basic emergency medicine, and, finally, diving into combat. The game has been downloaded more than 16 million times, 20% of entering cadets at West Point have played it, and between 20% and 40% of new Army recruits have played it as well.
David Verklin and Bernice Kanner: Verklin is CEO, Carat Americas, and Chairman, Carat Asia-Pacific. Kanner was a marketing expert and the author for 13years of New York magazine's "On Madison Avenue" column.