Overselling the Military

05/09/2022

The British Army has a new recruitment campaign. We took a critical look at its message and how the latest iteration fits within the constant need to sell the military.


A powerfully built robot lopes tirelessly across an apocalyptic battlefield. It weaves its way through shattered buildings, past burned out cars, crushing a rusted oil drum underfoot without breaking pace. A sensor built into its head emits beams of light as it stops, limbs rotating inhumanely while it appears to assess the horizon. The scene zooms deep into the robot’s camera-like eye as a woman’s voice, itself robotically altered, asked us:

‘What does the army of the future look like?’

The camera pulls back from the eye. It now belongs to a young female soldier. She’s intensely focused, her face beaded with sweat. A further adjustment to the shot shows she is holding a small helicopter drone in an outstretched hand. It flies into the air, and we are told, in the same robotic voice:

‘It looks… like you.’

Another woman’s voice – not robotic this time – takes over:

‘In the future, technology will help us do incredible things. But nothing can do, what a soldier can do.’

Behind the woman, other soldiers appear, mucky from battle, rifles raised to their shoulders, as they advance through the bombed-out ruins. Another big zoom out and we see vehicles and infantry advancing determinedly through a shattered village towards some distant location several hills away.

Then we’re back at Lord Kitchener. The advert ends with an updating of his time-worn WW1 recruiting quote across the screen:

‘The army of the future still needs you.’

There’s a lot going on in the British Army’s new recruitment advert. Not least a pitch for a particularly bleak future, which seems to combine tropes from the movie Terminator and video games like Call of Duty – alongside the now-customary nods to diversity. Alongside her appearance in the video, the poster for the campaign shows the young female soldier and the robot in profile, as if they are facing off to fight each other. Another iteration of the poster, it must be said, is of a white soldier. Consciously or not, the adversarial face-off also echoes some of the marketing images for the Noughties sci-fi blockbuster series Aliens Vs Predator.

What can a soldier do?

The new campaign is titled “Nothing Can Do What a Soldier Can Do”. An LBC report – seemingly following the Army’s press release almost verbatim – claims the advertisements will be rolled out across various media platforms and hypes up the video’s production value:

The one-minute video advert will be shown in cinemas, on television and online and shows a dystopian future where a robotic soldier scouts the terrain of a conflict zone, made of more than 4,000 individual CGI elements and 2,000 sound design samples’.

The campaign is a continuation of the brief with PR firm Kamarama, and the advert seems to have excited some in the marketing press. Industry analysis claims the platform is highly flexible and will be used for reserves even though the initial launch is aimed at regular (full-time) recruitment. It will be in use in cinemas for an initial two months and focuses on the “confidence and self-belief” required of the soldiery. The piece also hints at how the adverts will progress to highlight other valuable characteristics:

‘Further radio, digital and social executions will highlight traits the Army needs, from empathy to imagination’.

An online iteration of the campaign hypes the value of artificial intelligence in, for example, finding victims of major disasters, but returns to the idea that only soldiers can deliver practical aid on the ground or compassion in situations requiring a human touch. This humanitarian focus is an oft-repeated trope in military recruiting, positioning soldiers as an relief giver and diluting the reality of military life and operations.

The pronounced elements of gamification certainly seem to suggest the Army is looking for the usual targets: the young and very young. We note this element has informed recruiting from the branch level down to the regimental tier, as evidenced in an Instagram post from the Royal Anglians with its game-ish over-the-shoulder perspectives of a live firing exercise (though it has to be said the Mediterranean glare gives the piece a Thomas Cook edge that is speaking to the wider Instagram audience). The Anglians advert differs from the latest Army campaign in important ways: the former is a grittier ‘point of view’ nod to first-person shooter game play, while the latter approaches high-end sci-fi and is more in line with overall game graphics.

Belonging to the Past

Comparing it to recent British Army campaigns, it is possible to see common themes and key differences. The “Your Army Needs You” campaign from 2019 did centre technology and diversity – its leading figure was a young black woman and sought to appeal to a mythologised millennial computer geek – but was not located in a dystopian world. As the tag-line suggests, there was a heavy Kitchener reference to that campaign too, in the form of advertising posters formulated like the WW1 general’s original recruiting pamphlets. These posters were intentionally designed for provocation, calling on “Snowflakes”, “Me. Me. Me. Millenials”, “Class Clowns” and “Phone Zombies” to step up to the challenge of protecting the country. It had a huge impact too, generating a lot of media coverage and driving up recruitment numbers.

Fast-forward 12 months, and a new campaign led with suggestions the Army is a route to confidence. It showed a disoriented soldier plagued by figures tempting him with hollow confidence boosters – from a gym body to fresh trainers – before he pulls himself together and receives a reassuring pat on the shoulder from a fellow soldier; the inference being these civilian distractions are superficial routes to confidence that disrupted his focus as he marched across either a battlefield or exercise terrain. As we wrote at the time, the advert exploited adolescent vulnerabilities that have morphed with the incredible growth of social media platforms.

“This is Belonging”, from 2017, focused on a much more rugged theme that was light on technology but heavy on community and comradeship. It was the first iteration of the brief with Karmarama, and one that drew upon the relationships developed in the forces and the often mundane ways in which they manifest. Whether that’s a bad rendition of an 80s anthem a snowy mountain ascent, or an asinine discussion on the merits of cricket whilst on sentry duty. Looking back at that campaign, it seems the most ditatched from the framing of the recent campaign and a good indicator of how the Army has evolved its pitch.

Elements of these previous Karmarama productions are evident in the new campaign, though they differ across platforms. The appeal to Gen Z of 2019 and 2020 comes through in the TV ads, whilst the comradeship of 2017 (and 2018) features in social media iterations. Where they differ, however, is in the pivot away from confidence, belonging and personal development towards the role of technology. This suggests a real-world shift in military thought and a change in their perception of potential recruits. The latter had a massive impact on the new campaign because the Army is concerned people think machines are removing the need for humans in warfare.

Focus Groups

We know from previous research on military recruitment that huge resources are committed to developing sophisticated marketing messages, including extensive focus group input into overall branding and individual advertising campaigns. A recent investigation by Max Colbert in the By-Line Times found that in the two years from 2019-21, the MOD spent an eye-watering £70 million on recruitment to the three services.

ForcesWatch sent an FOI request to the Ministry of Defence asking about the cost of the latest campaign and details on focus group sessions testing the marketing. We were told costs are not yet disclosable because the campaign was only at its mid-point, with another TV advert in the pipeline. However, we were sent a powerpoint outlining the results of a focus group run by marketing firm The Nursery.

The Nursery appears to have interviewed a range of young people aged between 18 and 24 with an interest in a military career. All participants were from C2DE backgrounds (the lowest socioeconomic category in the UK) and either prospective recruits or gatekeepers (parents, teachers and youth leaders) of that demographic. Our colleagues at Child Rights International Network (CRIN) have written extensively about how low income audiences and poorer areas have been targeted by recruiters and The Nursery’s emphasis on C2DE is an example of this trend. The focus group criteria stipulated a number of additional needs, for example that BAME people be well represented, that no-one should be a military veteran or have family members in the military, and, perhaps most tellingly, that no participant ‘be in a career they particularly enjoy’. This reflects a pattern in recruitment marketing of playing on insecurities, anxities and even seasonal sadness to attract interest from disaffected young people.

What is clear from the focus group results is that the Army wanted the adverts to address perceptions that modern warfare is becoming more technologically advanced and thus less reliant on personnel. So, across different platforms it set about promoting those aspects of the soldier that machines seemingly cannot replace. This includes compassion and care, with online adverts focusing on peacekeeping roles and connections made during downtime in the barracks. The Nursery claims that the various adverts presented to participants were among the best received of any Army campaign. The key messages – and Kitchener reference – were generally understood and the background relevance of the Ukraine war was not seen as a ‘spontaneous’ motivator.

Internal row?

It is hard to know how long the campaign had been in development, but its release coincides with a moment of conflict between military leaders and civilian politicians. The Tories, despite being the self-proclaimed party of defence, have consistently cut troop numbers and emphasised the increasing use of technology. The most recent announcement from the government was that a further 10,000 troops would be cut, to the chagrin of senior military leaders. Perhaps Liz Truss’ pledge to increase defence spending to 3% of GDP could see a shift in stance towards personnel numbers in the future.

General Patrick Sanders, the recently appointed Chief of General Staff, was himself reportedly disciplined by Boris Johnson for objecting to the cuts in June. Days earlier, Sanders had issued an internal message to the military arguing that the Russia threat meant troop numbers must be strengthened. Whilst it would be an imaginative leap to suggest that the recruiting campaign was partly addressed to the government, the robot vs soldier framing underpins the army’s position that it is soldiers, not technology, which win wars.

Notwithstanding the question of the military’s disagreement with the government over troop levels, the new campaign combines many of the now-standard ingredients. There are the hints of wokeness, nods to popular games, the suggestions of an elite community, a degree of nostalgism over an iconic war leader and the centrality of the military human. Whether it will convince potential recruits to join or the public to support the military, remains to be seen.

Want to learn more? You can read an indepth critique of Army recruitment techniques in our report Selling The Military.