Army of fun

New military recruiting campaign borrows from video games, extreme sports and theme parks

Among the Army’s new marketing tools are a climbing wall, a video game, virtual skydiving and Humvee rides, interactive displays and personalized dog tags.

Among the Army’s new marketing tools are a climbing wall, a video game, virtual skydiving and Humvee rides, interactive displays and personalized dog tags.

Photo by Larry Dalton

It was like a theme-park ride. Students walked up a ramp through tinted doors into a sleek, black mobile trailer; had their hands stamped; signed a waiver; and logged in on the snazzy laptop computers perched on the counter.

Suddenly, nine screens flashed images of adventure: fit, young people hiking in the snow while dressed in white Gore-Tex outfits; a group of handsome men rappelling down a cliff without breaking a sweat; and video of clean-cut 19-year-olds, such as “Richard,” “Evers” and “Michelle,” that lent a personal feel to the world of intrigue, adventure and high-energy music known as “An Army of One.”

The U.S. Army’s latest attempt to attract potential recruits had set up shop at Cosumnes River Community College. The event officially was dubbed an “Interactive Event Tour,” and it was noticeably hipper than Uncle Sam’s bony finger pointing at whom he wants.

Progressing through the trailer, everything was black except for the exhibits. Larger-than-life mannequins in fatigues held rifles suspended in combat against the dark background of the display case. The 24-hour Fitness music blasting from the TV screens at the entrance faded the deeper in the students went.

At the end of the hall, attendees were confronted with an intriguingly large box. The size and shape connoted those mechanical fortune-teller booths where, for 50 cents, Dora the Gypsy jerks a plastic hand forward and drops a slip of paper upon which is written your destiny.

Yet, after stepping into the hollow contraption, a touring student was confronted by the buff body of an Army Ranger in full fatigues. Heavy commando boots and large, attractive pecs supported … the student’s very own face! The caption below read: “Look inside to See a ‘Soldier of the Future.’ ”

After exiting the trailer, the adventure continued in the main courtyard. People scaled a huge rock-climbing wall. To its right, a Humvee simulator sloshed potential recruits in a van-like contraption fastened to a moving base (think Star Tours). The simulator ride seated six comfortably and boasted an all-black, plastic interior similar to that of the mobile exhibition hall.

In some places, the basic-black color scheme that dominated the event was accented with gold stars and crisp lettering in yellow, red or white. A magnified image of a red A*A symbol (for American Army) stitched onto black material was projected on one of the TV monitors at the entrance. The sporty logo brought to mind a Starter jacket rather than the stereotypically sterile Army recruiting office in a local mall.

In fact, according to Todd James, the assistant tour manager for the traveling event, the Army hired Relay Sports and Event Marketing (a San Luis Obispo-based company) “to give the Army a facelift, to change the overall view.”

“It’s no longer just ‘be a soldier, go out and fight,’ ” said James, who actually works for Relay. “It’s a high-tech world, and the Army is high-tech. We come to college campuses to recruit, to meet educated people to take care of all of this.”

On tour for a total of 16 months, the interactive event will visit a total of 70 schools in 30 states in its bid to keep people joining the Army during the country’s current war efforts. The tour will run through December 3, 2003 and, if deemed successful, will continue for another 16 months beyond that.

Like at many job fairs (which is how the event felt, with its bag of goodies, glossy pamphlets and eager recruiters), some students just came for the free stuff. Cosumnes River College students Kao Saelee and Anthony Tuck had heard about the free America’s Army video game (“The official U.S. Army game,” according to a poster on the exhibit trailer) that event staff members were handing out.

Saelee said many students were attracted by the free game: “A couple people that came by, they came by just for the game ’cause the game’s pretty interesting. Like that one dude, he just came in, and he was like, ‘Oh, can I just get the game?’ ”

Tuck said the slick approach was effective: “It’s like their own little carnival thing going on to attract people. I think it’s a good way to get people wanting to join the Army. Because, I mean, it’s not all about combat. There’s also military training and careers and work in an office—the business side of it, too.”

Tuck said he saw the logic in the new recruiting strategy: “The Army is actually taking people that play video games because, if you’re good at video games, it says that you possess good hand and eye coordination. So, that’s why the Army is feeding and having a really good response from people that play video games and the simulations. Because then, when they put them in combat situations, they know how to kill, and I think that’s what the Army wants is people that can kill.”

Many youngsters, like 16-year-old Mohammed Khan, are eager to join. “It looks like fun,” he said to a recruiter. He’s not the only one. At the UC Davis tour stop the previous day, James said, the event staff signed up 180 potential recruits.

Staff Sgt. Jericho Del Rosario, an Army recruiter sporting a smart, green Army uniform, touted the Army’s policy of non-discrimination: “Everything is equal. In the Army, we look at [only] one color, which is [the] color green,” he said. Yet, Army green seems increasingly to be taking a back seat to basic high-tech black.

To facilitate recruiting efforts, James explained, “all the recruiters are going to be civilian recruiters. They’re making that transition right now.” James said Relay Sports and Event Marketing has “requested that [the recruiters] do not wear uniforms—that they dress a little more casually.”

Although the dress-down policy has not gone into effect yet, even at this event it was hard to tell who was recruiting and who was just staffing the rides. One such staffer who ran the personalized dog-tag booth (on Relay’s payroll, not the Army’s) said that when people ask him if he works for the Army, he typically replies with the vague, “We’re supporters of the Army.”

James’ assistant, Javier Bedolla, agreed that the distinction between Army recruiters and civilian marketers was blurred: “I would say most of the people assume so because, you know, we’re part of the whole site. I mean, we have the Army logo on our shirts.”

Bedolla saw the day’s turnout as positive, saying that “the enthusiasm is really good.” However, when asked what specifically he thought the attendees were enthusiastic about, he could not say. He pointed to the people climbing the rock wall as evidence of excitement, but whether it was about the games and rides or about the possibility of joining the Army, he was not sure.

In any case, it did not appear critical to either the official U.S. Army representatives or the event organizers and their staff. As long as students were hand-stamped and logged in at the entrance to the interactive adventure, everyone seemed content.

Game over.