Force Advertising: The Problem with Military Ads

Dramatic music. Aerial shots of imposing ships. Rugged soldiers storming a battlefield to sonorous narration. The clip ends on the emblem of the Marines, along with the tagline “The Few. The Proud.” Despite the veneer of governmental legitimacy, military advertisements resemble corporate ads, replete with logos and slogans. Military branches even have their own songs to parallel jingles.

Polarized debates over military spending are nothing new. In his 2016 State of the Union address, President Obama noted the US spends “more on our military than the next eight nations combined,” and other estimates place the number even higher. War Hawks counter that absolute spending is a blunt metric: when measured per capita or as a share of GDP, the US no longer comes out on top.

Taking into account the Department of Defense’s (DoD) base budget, those of other national security organizations, and the additional Overseas Contingency Operations funding received by both, total military spending comes out to $989 billion. Despite these resources, active-duty personnel numbers have fallen to 1.3 million (0.4 percent of the population served in an active-duty role in 2015), and in 2018 the Army fell short of its annual recruitment goal of 76,500 by 6500 recruits. Attempting to maintain troop capacity, the Guardian reports that “the Pentagon spends $1.6 billion on recruiting.” Debates over these aggregated funding figures ultimately obfuscate more implicating questions about how the military spends its budget. 

At the end of the day, the military runs on people power, but those people are too often unprepared for combat. Daniel Goure of the Lexington Institute writes, “If it has one spare dollar to invest, the Army should put it in human performance.” Recruits increasingly hail from military communities in the South where they experienced frequent contact with people who served and went to schools that encouraged service. However, military families are also becoming less likely to recommend enlisting to their children. 

To overcome its personnel crunch, the military has turned to bonuses and advertisements. Joining either the Army or Navy at the right time and for the right job can yield substantial financial reward, with enlistment bonuses reaching $40,000. These figures appear in publicity materials, and advertising efforts have evolved to take advantage of social media. Unfortunately, military advertisements do more harm than good, especially when coupled with the allure of lucrative, but unpredictable bonuses.

All military advertisements are misinformative. Defenses of advertisements usually rely on their educational value, arguing that they inform consumers about opportunities that benefit them. However, the educational value is contingent on the advertisements displaying accurate information about the product or service in question. When a company uses “misleading illustrations or photographs,” this is false advertising and is thus against the law. Flashy military ads that glamorize service with attractive soldiers and inspiring music are guilty of this misinformation. No advertisement can accurately depict the “fog of war” or prepare prospective recruits for the horrors of combat. With every Hollywood advertisement the military runs, it undermines the consent of recruited viewers.

Moreover, Army recruits only learn the actual figure they would receive at the very end of the recruitment process, just before signing their contract. This is especially manipulative given how few recruits actually receive the maximum bonus amount, despite that figure’s prominence in Army publicity materials. Federal law bans lottery advertisements; perhaps there are grounds for a similar restriction when recruits are gambling on wages.

"If it sought to respect the autonomy of its troops, affirm its institutional legitimacy, and prepare for modernization, scaling back its financial recruitment advertisements would serve the military well."

Recruitment ads are especially problematic when they incorporate financial inducements because, though the majority of the force grew up in middle class neighborhoods, the ads disproportionately target poor people. Some economists would argue that learning about career opportunities strictly benefits the people who receive the information. However, this blunt argument misses the nuance of this particular circumstance. Firstly, behavioral economists know that humans aren’t rational: even if an action is not in their best interest, they may find themselves unable to resist taking it because of some immediate reward. For example, Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist Richard Thaler is fond of recounting the story of a dinner party at which his guests thanked him for removing the bowl of cashews that was ruining their appetites: they preferred fewer options over an irresistible harm. Likewise, prospective recruits might find $40,000 too good to turn down, even if they don’t actually find this sufficient compensation for the risks they incur. 

Second, institutions broadly recognize that dramatic financial incentives distort decisions in a coercive way. This is why institutional review boards object to their researchers offering dramatic financial incentives to procure participants for a dangerous study, even if they gave “consent.” The FDA recommends, “The IRB should review both the amount of payment and the proposed method and timing of disbursement to assure that neither are coercive or present undue influence.” Any proposed double standard of institutional integrity that permits this behavior in the military but not academic research probably relies on an arbitrary distinction between the two. 

Third, when the supply of workers increases, wages fall. This means that without advertisement-induced recruitment, pay would be higher for the smaller pool of recruits. This scenario would likely benefit the worst-off who have the greatest incentive to look into work opportunities and talk to recruiters even when they’re not targeted with advertisements. With lower numbers, the military is also more likely to grant recruits waivers for mental illness and criminal background, which will also improve opportunities for the most disadvantaged groups. 

Military advertisements, even the explicitly financial kind, do deserve some credit. For example, one potential benefit of these advertising strategies and current recruitment efforts is the diversification of the force. The Marines recently ran its first ad centering a female fighter and recent recruitment efforts have targeted liberal cities that don’t typically yield many recruits. The pool of recruits also diversified in 2015 when President Obama declared women eligible for combat roles. 

It is also important to remember military service offers a genuine ladder out of poverty and that advertisements play an especially important role in providing access to that ladder due to a lack of information about the military in many regions. Programs to pay off student debt and provide funds for college tuition really do improve the quality of life for marginalized groups. Veterans Administration home loans help veterans secure housing and military service builds valuable skills, including teamwork, discipline, and technical knowledge. Skeptics respond that PTSD doesn’t exactly pad the resume, veterans are overrepresented among people experiencing homelessness, and these veterans are disproportionately likely to be African American or Hispanic.
Proponents of unrestricted recruitment also offer the argument that preying on poor communities is the strategy that sustains all militaries and always has been. The alternative is a dramatically understaffed force. Thankfully, this cynical perspective overlooks that the future of military conflict bears little resemblance to the ways things have been done before. Artificial intelligence, cyberattacks, and fleets of tiny satellites will increasingly characterize war, which means not only that obsolescent troops will reduce the need for recruitment ads, but also that the sooner the military pivots away from its current personnel structure, the sooner it can embrace automation. If it sought to respect the autonomy of its troops, affirm its institutional legitimacy, and prepare for modernization, scaling back its financial recruitment advertisements would serve the military well.

Photo: Image via Flickr (Leonel Yanez)