The challenge of selling death and serious injury

Having spent a good chunk of my career in the niche area of recruitment marketing and employee communication – and still often working for agencies in this market place – I read with interest the recent press commentary regarding David Gee’s report on British army recruitment for the Joseph Rowntree Trust.

Gee accuses the army of underplaying the risks involved in a military career. Their print brochures and DVDs are too sanitised, he claims, and tend to avoid nasty words such as ‘kill’. I’ll be honest enough to admit that I haven’t seen the report itself yet – only the press coverage. Nevertheless, the central challenge – that the Ministry of Defence is sanctioning marketing material that presents a false image of army life – deserves to be taken seriously.

I’m always astonished when relatives of soldiers appear on the television complaining that their son, daughter, husband or wife has been caught up in a war. Did they really think that military service was all about trumpet playing, rugby fixtures and the occasional ride in a helicopter? Could it be that the career has been misrepresented to the recruit and their immediate family? In some ways, perhaps it has. But as a practising creative, I know that the options are pretty limited.

Let’s consider for a moment a recruitment advertising campaign for a more mundane occupation. Accountancy, perhaps. Or IT. Many people probably die of boredom in these professions, but you’d be a fool to mention it if you were preparing a press ad or glossy brochure to promote the benefits of a career. The job of the advertising creative is to accentuate the positive and downplay or eliminate the negative. This isn’t a lie. It’s presenting a particular version of the truth. When a potential purchaser visits your house, do you mention the crack in the ceiling? Or simply point out the rather splendid conservatory you recently erected?

It would be perfectly reasonable to counter that military service is a unique occupation and one that comes with exceptional risk. But I remember writing recruitment ads for the London Fire Brigade ten years ago that never mentioned the dangers of fire. Indeed, there’s a case for saying that the more inherently dangerous the job, the more the creative work has to compensate and offer a clear and positive benefit to the prospective recruit.

At the same time, there’s a bloody-minded and argumentative side of me that wants to turn everything I’ve just written on its head. Perhaps we should be mentioning the dangers. Not out of any misplaced moral imperative, but because it might actually prove attractive to the target audience. Don’t certain young people – and young men in particular – gravitate towards the military precisely because they hope to see action?

Whatever the rights and wrongs, I suspect we’ll wait a long time to see a significant change in strategy, as creatives have a natural reticence when it comes to ‘telling it like it is’. Towards the end of last year, I ran a couple of workshops for graphic design students at a university in London and set them an advertising brief to recruit women to the Royal Navy. Many of the creative responses were very good indeed and some of the students came up with compelling messages about escaping from the boredom of office life, learning a trade or even wearing a fancy uniform. Not one of the groups presented concepts though that made any mention of torpedoes, submarine attack or capture by the enemy. And this was despite the high-profile case in 2007 of a number of British sailors – including a woman – being arrested and paraded by the Iranian authorities. It would be interesting to know the type of marketing campaign these captives would devise. And whether they’d encourage anyone to follow in their footsteps at all.

© Phil Woodford, 2008. All rights reserved.

Phil Woodford is a visiting lecturer in marketing and advertising at Birkbeck College, University of London.