"Temptation is not random, nor is it one-size-fits-all. Instead, it
will always attach itself to our unique talents and aspirations. One of temptation's
cleverest tricks is to seduce that which is a strength. Our strength can become
our downfall because we're tripped up through the misuse or misdirection of
our talents and ambitions."
on Parenting: 10 Essential Principles That Will Transform Your Family
My daughter works in the guidance office of her
high school. She runs errands, takes calls, files paperwork, and does all she
can to help guidance counselors as they advise and assist college-bound students.
But demand is low this year: With recruiters sitting in the hallway, playing
rock music at a cafeteria table at lunch, and striking up chummy conversations
with kids every chance they get, and with every senior's first period devoted
not to academics but to watching Channel One's recruiting TV, military prep
is winning young hearts and minds away from college prep.
On parent-teacher night, I entered the guidance office and noticed large recruiting
posters on the wall. There were no college-recruiting posters or ads of any
sort. Inside the guidance counselors' offices, students can't help but see more
military posters and stacks of glossy recruiting brochures, booklets, and magazines.
If you didn't know better, you'd think you were at the Army Recruiting Office
near the mall, not a public school guidance office that's supposedly dedicated
to helping students make the most of their educational experience and continue
on to college or trade school.
A guidance counselor may never say a word about joining the military. But then
again, she really doesn't need to: the recruiting posters and materials do it
for her. Students can't help but see them, and if they ever pick up a brochure
while they're waiting, they're bound to feel the pull of exceedingly well-researched
appeals to teen psychology.
How Military Recruiting Posters and Brochures Persuade Teens
Marketing whizzes at MTV, The Gap, and Abercrombie
and Fitch know how to appeal to kids in need of confidence, direction, escape,
and/or an identity, but the military is even better at it. And considering enlistment's
distinct disadvantages over purchasing clothing and music (with the former you
stand a good chance of getting killed or losing an eye, a limb, or your mental
health), the marketing tricks in military materials must be far more sophisticated
and on target. Here's just a sampling of the psychological and financial appeals
used to persuade kids (all bold print and caps are as-printed on the brochures):
Large folded brochures for the Army are made of high-quality glossy card stock,
featuring a macho-looking grainy yellow-and-black color theme:
Appeal #1:Immediate excitement; freedom from decision-making; unlimited
career options; supportive, sky's-the-limit guidance from implicit father
figures. Free money now, free money later, free college later, and free gifts
The cover teases: "FACT: CAREER ADVICE IS ALWAYS BETTER WHEN IT COMES
WITH A FREE GIFT." The brochure folds out into five sections featuring
pictures of white and black soldiers adjusting things in cockpits, wearing gas
masks, working on laptops, and staring at a propeller of some sort. One section
has three columns:
"US ARMY: SERVE AS A FULL-TIME SOLDIER STATIONED IN THE UNITED STATES
OR OVERSEAS: Up to $70,000 for college after you serve, Up to $20,000 enlistment
bonus, The chance to qualify for over 150 careers. …
"ARMY RESERVE: TRAIN NEAR HOME AND SERVE WHEN NEEDED: Up to $22,000 for
college, while you serve, Up to $10,000 enlistment bonus, The chance to qualify
for over 120 careers. … An extra paycheck every month. …
"ROTC: RESERVE OFFICER TRAINING CORPS: TRAIN TO BECOME AN OFFICER IN THE
US ARMY OR ARMY RESERVE WHILE ATTENDING COLLEGE: Entry into the Army as an Officer,
Up to $20,000 scholarship a year, Up to $4,000 annual stipend, Generous textbook
On the back cover, the bold print continues: "IN THE ARMY, YOU'LL GET
GUARANTEED TRAINING AND IMMEDIATE RESPONSIBILITY. NOT TO MENTION A FREE GIFT
JUST FOR FINDING OUT MORE." The student is told, "Great careers start
with great training, and that's what the Army is all about."
(The Army is "all about" career training?) Then comes the catch:
"Return the card below to learn more, and you'll get a free US Army T-shirt.
See? Your training is paying off already." Two tear-off cards are attached:
One sells hard, "SEND ME MORE INFORMATION AND A FREE US ARMY T-SHIRT,"
while the other cries, "PLEASE SEND THIS TO A FRIEND."
At the bottom of each card in ridiculously small print (I had to get a magnifying
glass to read it), an "act now!" flavor is added: "Offer expires
April…" "You must be between the ages of 16 and 34…" and "The
information you voluntarily provide, including your Social Security number,
will be used for recruiting purposes only. Your Social Security Number
will be used to analyze individual response to this mailing." (emphasis
APPEAL #2: Magical, immediate rescue from poverty, crime-ridden neighborhood,
racism/hostility/contempt from adults, crummy school, and unemployment. All
obstacles vanish as soon as the student enlists, and riches start pouring
Another yellow/black Army brochure is more blunt, designed for kids whose families
can't afford to send them to college. The cover shouts: "LEARN HOW TO OVERCOME
OBSTACLES. LIKE COLLEGE TUITION." On the next page, these are the only
words: "GET UP TO $68,000 FOR COLLEGE." On the page after that, these
are the only words: 3 WAYS TO EARN.
On the following drop-down pages, hip photos of an ecstatic-looking white soldier
leaning on a chain-link fence; somber, intelligent-looking Asian and African-American
men dressed in medical clothing and standing in an operating room; and a vulnerable-looking
white woman in fatigues who's sitting on the ground holding a camera.
APPEAL #3: Buy now, pay later message: Get immediate money without even
working! Don't worry about war and possible maiming or death – that's far
away in the distant future. Just enjoy your free $120 every month today.
The "sales close" is headlined: "SIGN UP NOW, SERVE LATER."
The text explains that with the Delayed Entry Program, you can "have your
plans for after graduation all lined up. Enlist in the Army now, and the career
training you select will be reserved for up to a year. Or enlist in the Army
Reserve now, and you can earn over $120 a month during your school year, even
before you go away to Basic Training."
APPEAL #4: Buddy system to allay realistic fears of getting wounded or
killed. Free gifts allow teens to imagine being soldiers without risk, with
"personalized Dog Tags" and Army gym bags. Message: If you're scared
of entering the military and combat, convince your friends to enlist too:
for a short time you and your buddies can have sleepovers and hang out together.
It'll be fun.
"JOIN WITH A FRIEND: Buddy Team Enlistment Option: Sign up with a friend,
and if you both qualify, you'll go through Basic Training, Advanced Individual
Training and your first Active Duty assignment together." Then the clincher:
"GET MORE INFORMATION AND A FREE ARMY GYM BAG."
In case the gym bag isn't enough, another couple of cards were mailed to my
daughter at the same time, pleading: "PLEASE SHARE THIS WITH A FRIEND.
Learn more about the Army and get a free personalized Dog Tag. Just send in
his form. … There is no cost or obligation."
APPEAL #5: Finding (or consenting to) one's destiny; freedom from decision-making.
A Navy brochure, smaller but more colorful and hip, appeals to kids' confusion,
anxiety, and the pressing need to find meaning and direction: "Sometimes
you go in search of your destiny. Sometimes, it finds YOU instead. Welcome to
APPEAL #6: Psychological support and flattery to boost low self-esteem/confidence.
Inside the Navy brochure, students read what they wish their parents
and teachers would say – but are often too busy, stressed, or cautious to tell
them: "You have one life. How far can it take you? AS FAR AS YOU WANT TO
GO. Navy Advanced programs. They're not for everyone. Frankly, we don't take
everyone – only certain individuals with special qualifications. Pride. Intelligence.
Integrity. And guts."
APPEAL #7: Promises of excitement, adventure, macho identity, superiority
to friends; immediate rescue from boredom, lack of options, and meaningless,
"In Navy Advanced Programs, you'll do more in six short years than
most do in a lifetime." There are photos of young men wearing things
on their heads: goggles, masks, helmets, and headphones, above which are the
words: "TWO-THIRDS OF THE WORLD IS UNDERWATER. SO MUCH FOR HAVING TO ACHIEVE
YOUR POTENTIAL FROM A 6' BY 8' CUBICLE." Under the photos are the words:
"Brace yourself: Each advanced program is far from ordinary. Far
from what your friends are probably doing. And far more meaningfully."
APPEAL #8: Promises of intellectual challenge, not just physical, macho
adventure; promises of equal opportunity for minorities and women.
On the next page there are photos of an Asian man working complex controls
(the word TECHNICAL is superimposed, perhaps to make sure young teens understand
that working controls is technical), a Hispanic woman spraying something on
a metal object, and a black person of indefinite gender fiddling with large
red circular items.
APPEAL #9: Reassurance that the military offers better education than
college ever could; promises of being given the responsibility and power of
life-and-death decisions/actions; "adrenaline-pumping" excitement;
saving time (earn-degrees-while-making money); and cash now.
The exciting caption under those photos reads: "Getting a life and
getting an education don't have to be mutually exclusive. You tend to learn
more when you do it, rather than hear about it. You tend to learn more when
the lives of co-workers depend on your skills. You tend to learn more when your
teacher weighs 97,000 tons. There's a lot to be said for having a nuclear
aircraft carrier as a teacher. Not the least of which is that in two years
of hands-on, adrenaline-pumping training, you'll not only have the adventure
of a lifetime, you'll be just credits away from an associate's degree. All
while getting paid."
APPEAL #10: Impressing friends; self-esteem boost via superiority to "most
people"; tacit reassurance that training won't require academic skills
or classroom success; free international travel; James Bond intrigue and adventure;
power/sex appeal through identification with powerful, sexy things (warships,
nuclear reactors, and beautiful on-ship women) – and, last but not least,
"saving the world."
More captions: "DO MORE THAN AMAZE YOUR FRIENDS. AMAZE THE WORLD. Navy
Advanced Programs take you around the world. Using equipment most people
could never dream of. From working on nuclear reactors to decoding encrypted
foreign communications. Where do you see yourself? Check out the possibilities…"
Next are magazine-style sound bites: "Underwater surveillance. Search-and-rescue
operations. Assembling and maintaining nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. In
advanced electronics, adventure, intrigue and saving the world are all
in a day's work."
Photos illustrate unstated promises: An African-American man is tinkering with
wires, a Latino man is steering something, and a pretty, smiling blonde woman,
her silky hair blowing in the wind, is holding onto a railing of some sort.
The captions read: "Get behind the most powerful warships on earth.
Maintain the Navy's most advanced propulsion systems and gas turbine engines.
Analyze foreign communications data. Keep the world's strongest fleet moving.
And thrive on the bottomless supply of adventure."
The following page shows a man wearing mountains of gear, an oxygen tank, white
gloves, and a huge helmet, doing something with a large hose. The caption beckons,
"If you're into adrenaline. Welcome to your DAY JOB." On another page,
a white sailor is watching a black sailor who's touching some wiring while holding
a 3-ring binder: The caption reads, "What makes the Navy the world's strongest?
On the postage-paid reply card, another pretty adolescent girl in a shapely
red sweater sits on what appears to be a naval ship. The caption asks, "What's
a typical day for a Navy Sailor? What do they do in their free time? What's
it like to live on a ship? Get the answers in 12 minutes. Fill out this card
for your FREE, 12-minute video." The card asks for all the usual identifying
information, "for recruiting purposes only."
Parents and teachers who care about kids should study each of these appeals
and inoculate naďve, trusting teens against their seductive powers. Don't
let the military become your child's parent by filling his or her unmet needs
– fill as many of those needs as you can, before it's too late. Talk with teens
about the deception and psychological tricks in glossy recruiting. To paraphrase
ad campaign, "Communication: The Anti-Recruiter."