By Steve Lundin, Chief Hunter and Gatherer– BIGfrontier Communications Group
One of the biggest marketing mantras today is “authenticity.” Agencies and consultants have built entire practices around trying to manufacture authentic sounding, tasting and smelling branding campaigns based on the ever so elusive attributes of truth and facts. So why is the Army squandering a golden opportunity to capitalize on the recent authentic reports of sex and violence?
This month’s prostitution and body part scandals could have been lifted from the script of any first person shooter and are standard fare for a generation of recruits whose worldview is shaped by video games. If anything the Army’s marketing consultants should be pressing the fire button – not scrolling backwards to retreat!
Look at the popularity of Modern Warfare and Grand Theft Auto: Violence and sex not only sell, they break records. If you’re seeking an engaging branding mechanism to capture the biggest potential windfall of troops since the Second World War just open the paper. Let’s face it – our current wars won’t last forever – and the Army doesn’t have a great track record of filling boots in peacetime. But instead of embracing this gift from Mars, the God of War, the Army, with five members cited in the Columbian sex scandal and who knows how many posing with Afghan body parts, is smothering it in a flak vest like an unwelcome live grenade. Is this the time to skulk into the corner with a dunce cap while the Secret Service gets all the attention? You know damn well the Service is probably being flooded with resumes from horny James Bond wannabees. This is no time to drop the flag and jump in the foxhole.
The beauty of this opportunity lies in its authenticity. Just look at the Army’s wishy-washy branding exercises of the past; without blood and guts all they could offer were campaigns based on motivational posters. Is “Be all you can be” that much different than “Today is the first day of the rest of your life?” It wasn’t until we locked and loaded during Desert Shield that the equation started to add up for an all-volunteer corps. It was the gear, the guns, the violence and the allure of far-off places that kicked military recruiting into high gear. Suddenly, the Army wasn’t just a path to an MBA, it was the road to a gun slinging, tattooed adventure. And shortly thereafter, the nascent gaming industry gifted us with Wolfenstein 3D, a first person combat shooter credited creating the template for the genre. The two have walked hand in hand ever since – with games becoming increasingly real and combat ever more alluring.
The gaming industry is to today’s Army what Hollywood was to it in the 1940’s – which is fortuitous – because the Army is still gun shy about marketing its main mission: blowing stuff up. Fortunately, the efforts of video game companies like Activision and Rockstar have managed to steamroll lame manufactured messages (Army Strong) and fuel interest in the old Wam, Blam, Bang Bang, Maam. And thanks to instant viral news, the media is now participating: You really can do the same stuff out there that you can do on screen. Talk about being all you can be – most 11 year-old gamers are stone cold killers by the time they’ve beat the first few levels. Seriously – do we want our country defended by guys who have mastered breath control for sniping or spreadsheets for inventory reports?
What would happen if the Army just let the firestorm burn? How does the secondary message/mission of winning hearts and minds jibe with the video game mindset of the next generations of soldiers? There is no game that ends with reconciliation and helping conquered enemies; peace is not part of the script – it doesn’t sell. No amount of finger wagging, witch hunting or bi-partisan senate hearings will change the id driven nature of war and soldiering.
Why are we so shocked and surprised when our soldiers act like soldiers and what does this tell us about the nature of product marketing in general? Is it OK to maim and whore for hours at a stretch through an avatar but not when someone else is shooting real bullets at you? If the truth is the best defense, then why not embrace it: This is what happens in war – steam and body parts both get blown off. Imagine the recruiting potential: Play the game – live the dream! While this example may be extreme, the lesson is clear: Faced with the rare prospect for authentic messages, marketers should seize them, no matter how far out of their comfort zone they may be. Reality doesn’t always conform to the brand bible.