New Times,
New Thinking.

Hate the army’s emotional new look? Then you know less about soldiers than you think

A new advertising campaign answers questions like “Can I be gay in the army?”

By Willard Foxton

There can be few more thankless tasks in British advertising than coming up with a new advert for the British armed forces.

No matter what you do, you’re going to get a load of stick. You’ve got two essential choices – you either go down the route of making the whole business of war look like a thrilling 18-30 adventure holiday, plus tanks, helicopters and machine guns at no extra charge – in which case you get lambasted by spirulina-eating Guardian columnists for glorifying Actual Baby Killers.

Or, you do what the makers of the most recent advertising campaign have done, and reflect something like the modern reality of the forces. In which case, sweaty old men appear and complain that the army is now packed full of PC Muslamic Snowflakes who couldn’t have done what they did in their day (i.e. get invalided out of the Corps of Army Music wind band on their first day).

We’re currently at stage one of this furore. The army’s £1.6m advertising campaign features some lovely animation voiced over by recent veterans talking about their experience of the forces.

In particular, the sweaty men object to an advert in which a soldier talks about the emotional support he got in the army, how it was like a brotherhood and he felt closer to his fellow soldiers than his own family. As an ex-war correspondent, I suspect it’ll do quite well with the average recruit. However, the objection from assorted ex-forces hemorrhoids seems to be that feelings have no place in the army, and talking about feelings will actively repel the sort of person who wants to be a soldier.

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Nor is this the only part of the campaign. Another ad asks “Can I be gay in the army?” while in another still, a Muslim soldier explains how he’s been able to practice his faith. Just like everything else in society, the army is clearly being taken over by social justice warriors. 

The army is one of those institutions in British society that is particularly attractive to traditionalists. This is certainly true for the bulk of people really getting into a froth about the latest campaign, most of whom left the forces more than a decade ago, or never served at all.

In actual fact, the British forces are now almost unrecognisable from the way they were before the early 2000s. There have been huge institutional shifts: the army is now in Stonewall’s top 100 gay employers and people from ethnic minorities are told they’ll be welcomed and celebrated. These are moves that the modern army is justifiably proud of, but also ones that are hard to communicate above the tub-thumping and loud voices of the long-retired ex-servicemen and nationalists.

I’ve got no doubt that defence staff waded through dozens of focus groups commissioned to answer the question: “Why aren’t youngsters joining the army?” The answers are on screen. This campaign is absolutely directed at addressing recruit concerns. 

The angry old backlash men – I wish I could say old Colonels but really old TA lance corporals – are right to an extent. This campaign wouldn’t have made them want to sign up. But of course, they aren’t the target. The bulk of young people today are motivated by different things than their parents and grandparents and have to be approached in a different way. 

That’s why, for example, you can’t make money selling a boy’s war comic like Battle or Warlord any more – there just isn’t a receptive audience to that sort of shooty shooty, bang bang action anymore.You have to  be more subtle. Basically, if this advert makes you furious, consider why you aren’t interested in loom bands and don’t watch anything on BBC3. Perhaps sir, you are out of touch?

Despite the attention it has attracted, the army campaign is aimed at single handedly overturning an enormous shortfall in recruitment, and won’t do the job by itself. 

To fix the recruitment deficit, more is needed than just showing the modern face of the Army on TV. The army will have to modernise the antiquated recruitment process itself (which has an enormous drop-off between initial inquiry and sign up) and improve troop pay. Perhaps, rather more cynically,  we’ll have to see a real spike in unemployment, before we start to see people flock to the colours again. 

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