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Military Recruiting Slogans: The Navy Sinks $457 Million

With great fanfare the United States Navy has unveiled a new recruiting campaign built around the slogan, “Forged by the Sea.” The Navy paid its PR/advertising consultant Young & Rubicam $457 million to develop the new brand, which took 18 months to think up. Now, that’s a whopping bit of change in the civilian world, but it’s just one-fourth the cost of a guided missile destroyer, a mere rounding error in Pentagon budgeting.

According to Navy officials, the new campaign is scientifically designed to appeal to a new generation of “Centennial” recruits and features a series of television ad spots with themes such as “SAILORS AREN’T BORN. THEY ARE FORGED BY THE SEA,” and the memorable tagline, “OUT HERE, IT’S NOT WHERE THE SEA TAKES YOU. IT’S WHAT THE SEA MAKES YOU!” Wow, sign me up for another tour!

Recruitment of soldiers, sailors, and airmen is fiercely competitive. Recruiters appeal to a sense of adventure (“JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD”), self-development (“BE ALL YOU CAN BE”), and the prestige of being the best, the elite fighting force (“THE FEW, THE PROUD, THE MARINES”). It’s all pretty glamorous and alluring to a wide-eyed recent high school graduate, but that’s the whole point to keep recruitment numbers up and keep our nation strong.

All the branches of the armed services have their own style of recruitment, some great, some so-so, some downright awful. I think the U.S. Marine Corps has consistently had the very best recruiting taglines and slogans over the years. It all starts with the Marine’s memorable motto, “SEMPER FI” (always faithful). That commitment of loyalty to the Corps, country, and to fellow Marines has been the spiritual foundation for all Marine recruitment campaigns.

Over the years the Marines have played on the “elite fighting force” theme over and over again. One iconic campaign poster “THE MARINES ARE LOOKING FOR A FEW GOOD MEN” even inspired the title of a Hollywood blockbuster movie starring Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson, A Few Good Men. Needless to say, the emphasis on good men was more than a bit awkward with respect to the fine women who serve in the Marine Corps today and those who are being recruited.

One of the best Marine recruiting slogans during the sixties and early seventies was paired with the photo of a crazed drill instructor and made “WE DON’T PROMISE YOU A ROSE GARDEN” one of the most legendary recruiting posters ever made for the Marine Corps. In that classic campaign, the Corps really distinguished itself from the other services with a compelling theme has endured ever since.

Unlike other services that told potential recruits about awesome job opportunities, GI Bill money, or adventure, the Corps promised only pain, extreme challenges, and sacrifice. The messaging attracted a certain kind of recruit: One who was only interested in earning the title of Marine.

Other branches tried valiantly to keep pace with the recruiting leaders among the armed forces. For the Air Force, its “AIM HIGH” campaign was easily one of its best. It was simple, snappy, memorable, and said all you need to know: we think we’re the best branch, so why try to join the Army or Navy?

The punchy simplicity of that slogan certainly was a vast improvement over the clunky earlier version, “AIM HIGH… FLY-FIGHT-WIN,” which sounded more like a college football cheer than a serious recruitment effort. And then, there are all those other Air Force slogans that have been relegated to the dust bin of failed recruitment history, such as “DO SOMETHING AMAZING” (don’t forget not all Air Force personnel are intrepid fighter pilots; some are cooks, plumbers, lawyers, and other support troops — amazing?), “WE DO THE IMPOSSIBLE EVERY DAY” (oh, really?), “NO ONE COMES CLOSE” (surely you know the Navy has pilots who fly on and off aircraft carriers every day in foul weather and heavy seas, so lose the empty hyperbole), and “IT’S NOT SCIENCE FICTION, IT’S WHAT WE DO EVERYDAY” (this would be a better slogan for Scientology!).

The Army has tried and tried again to distinguish itself among the other armed forces. It has repeatedly fumbled the ball. By far the most popular and powerful Army recruitment theme was “Be All You Can Be,” which ran with great success for over twenty years.

That campaign clearly wasn’t broke, but the Army decided to fix it anyway with a new slogan “ARMY OF ONE” which in turn was rejected in favor of “ARMY STRONG.” The Army correctly theorized that the “Army of One” campaign was contrary to the central concept of teamwork essential to the Army’s mission.

Earlier, the Army recruiting effort had stumbled around in the 1970s with a series of failed slogans, “TODAY’S ARMY WANTS TO JOIN YOU” was a recruiting slogan from the 1971 Volunteer Army (Project VOLAR) campaign, which was introduced as the country prepared to transition to an all-volunteer army. Next up was “JOIN THE PEOPLE WHO’VE JOINED THE ARMY” in 1973, which later evolved into “THIS IS THE ARMY.” All of these are lame recruiting slogans, but at least the last one is hard to disagree with.

The Coast Guard recruiting campaign is virtually inscrutable. It was launched in 2009 under the banner “BORN READY” in an effort “to attract applicants who are teamwork oriented, confident and embody the service’s core values of Honor, Respect, Devotion to Duty, and Service Above Self,” I sure hope they didn’t pay a consultant millions for that pabulum!

The Navy’s “FORGED BY THE SEA” stands as the latest salvo in the ongoing battle among the service branches to recruit the best and brightest young talent. It remains to be seen how effective the campaign will be and whether the Navy will win the recruiting battle field.

But, win or lose, $457 million for the “FORGED BY THE SEA” slogan and related campaign advertising is totally out of line. After all, the slogan really makes no sense since “forged” means “made into a desired shape by heating and hammering.” Of course, heating and hammering have nothing whatsoever to do with the sea. The Navy’s new branding tagline is just a very expensive example of tone-deaf Madison Avenue creativity.

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