Director Jordan Moss prepares reality show 'Starting Strong' host Staff Sgt. Kristen King, mentor Staff Sgt. Marc Yonkovich and recruiting prospect Matthew Gates for a scene shot at Joint Base Lewis McChord. The show gives interested civilians a taste of Army life and helps these prospects make a final decision about becoming a soldier at the end of each episode. (Sgt. Mark Miranda / Army)
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To reach prospective recruits and their parents, the Army is airing reality show-style TV commercials in which prospects train beside actual soldiers.
Thirty-minute episodes of “Starting Strong,” began airing June 2 on 16 Fox affiliates and on the Army’s YouTube channel.
The 10-episode series was produced by the Army Marketing and Resource Group and directed by actor, director and producer Rick Schroder.
With the show, the Army is attempting to attract the eyeballs of young people who, more and more, skip traditional commercials but watch shows on Netflix and YouTube — and their parents, to convince them that the Army is a good place for young people.
“We still have to find a way to engage them and their parents and show them what the Army’s like,” said Mark S. Davis, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for marketing. “And to be perfectly honest, a 30-second commercial is not a very informative tool to show you what the Army’s like. A 30-minute commercial is.”
With the clock ticking and noncommissioned officers watching, Julian Chavez, 19, of Portland, Ore., worked his way around an OH-58 Kiowa helicopter, checking the rotors, loading rockets and running after a foreign object the way a maintainer would. When the pilots arrived, Chavez was surprised to learn he had picked up a lot of training and performed well.
“He made the time that we gave him, which was pretty awesome. He just had a few small mistakes,” 1st Sgt. Will Trost, 28, of 4th Squadron, 6th Air Cavalry Regiment, says into the camera.
Dubbed “prospects” and not recruits, the 10 stars of the series are, like Chavez, “guys and gals from off the street who are interested in being part of the Army,” Davis said. Filming in 2010 and 2011, the producers brought the prospects to several installations to experience slices of training from nine military occupational specialties, aided by NCOs and junior enlisted soldiers.
“We’re trying to reinforce what ‘Army Strong’ means,” Davis said, referring to the service’s slogan. “You’ll see these people change.”
Each episode follows the prospects as they decide whether to join the Army, becoming stronger mentally and physically along the way, Davis said, a phenomenon that earned cheers from soldiers and civilians in test screenings.
“This one kid, named Frank, in the combat engineer episode, was getting ready to do an Australian rappel from 50 feet up, and Frank’s scared of heights,” Davis said. “The NCO tells him trust in your equipment, trust in your teammates who are helping you, and what he’s really saying is trust in me, trust in us, we’re the Army team.”
Showing young viewers and especially their parents the “tough love” relationship between experienced NCOs and young soldiers was a big goal of the campaign. Later, Frank’s mother decides to support him even though she has mixed feelings about his decision to join the Army.
“I don’t want to just sell the Army unless I’m telling the truth about the Army,” Davis said. “The Army will sell itself to those folks we want to join if they can just see it for what it really is.”
The Army is spending $9 million on the show, which includes the cost of producing and airing it in 16 major markets. By comparison, Davis said, it costs $1 million to make a 30-second commercial, excluding the cost of air time.
As the war winds down and the Army shrinks, does it makes sense to spend money this way to attract new recruits? Davis acknowledged he gets that question a lot, and there are two answers.
One is that in spite of the Army’s planned reductions, its recruiting mission remains more or less stable at 69,000 this year and 68,000 the year after.
The next has to do with the intangibles of advertising in an era of short memories and attention spans.
“Marketing is like a big boulder, and when you push that boulder up a hill, you have to keep constant pressure on it, and if you take a little pressure off, it rolls down a little bit,” Davis said. “If you take all the pressure off, it rolls all the way down and you’ve lost everything.”
The ads will run in several areas where recruiting tends to be lower, major cities and the Northeast, Davis said. To gauge the ads’ success, the Army will be watching the YouTube traffic, and recruiting, in those areas for an uptick.
Soldiers may recognize Fort Bragg, N.C.; Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.; Fort Sam Houston, Texas; and Fort Carson, Colo., among others — chosen by the training cycles at the installations and the interests of the prospects.
Civil affairs soldiers, combat engineers and medics are among the MOSs in the spotlight.
Although the 10 prospects are the stars because the audience experiences the Army through their eyes, the NCOs “steal the show” by taking care of the prospects and by being themselves, Davis said.
“NCOs are going to see themselves, and anyone who’s ever worn a uniform will see themselves in these young people,” Davis said. “It’s mostly NCOs and junior soldiers.”