Pentagon & Congress

Netflix-style services undercut military recruiting ads, so DoD wants new authorities from Congress

The way media is consumed in 2020 has undercut efforts to market military service to young people, according to a Pentagon personnel policy official.

To combat the oversaturated market and the trend toward customized media consumption, which often eschews traditional advertising, the Defense Department asked Congress for authorities that expand information collection, mirror private sector ads and help tailor content to youths, according to Stephanie Miller, director of military accession policy within the Pentagon.

“Think of your own Netflix or Amazon Prime streaming accounts,” Miller said during an Association of the United States Army conference panel Wednesday. “You don’t see commercials for the military — or really commercials for any product placement — within those streaming platforms.”

That is probably preferred by most Americans, but Pentagon policy wonks aren’t fans.

“At the same time that many of the benefits of military service are increasing in terms of either the dollars and cents that people can get out of the experience and the access to education … the public perception of the value of those benefits has been decreasing,” Miller said.

Media consumption, especially on social media platforms like Twitter and TikTok, doesn’t cultivate attention span either.

“We’re lucky if we get someone to look at [an ad] for three seconds or more,” Miller noted.

“So it’s a difficult job that we have to [do], within a 30-second spot or a billboard ad or a 20-second radio spot or a social media ad … to try to address their misinformation, to educate them about the reality and the benefit of service, and then try to move them to the point where they would be willing to have a conversation with a recruiter,” Miller added.

Congress has been “particularly receptive” to the DoD’s request for a look at the authorities governing what the military is able to do in terms of media advertising, social media engagement, the type of information being collected and tailoring content to individuals, according to Miller.

“A lot of the authorities that we have right now are based upon kind of telephone directory information,” said Miller. “That’s just not sufficient any longer. … So our partners across the aisle in Congress have been receptive to exploring opportunities to expand those authorities.”

Those expanded authorities would mirror what the private, commercial sector uses every day, Miller explained.

“But we also have to be thoughtful about how we do that,” she added. “While folks may not be concerned about Nike selling them a pair of shoes every time they open up their email or every time they go to Facebook or YouTube or Instagram, they may have a very different visceral response when it’s talking about military service.”

The expanded authorities would apply to all the armed service’s marketing and advertising agencies, according to Miller. The priorities, she said, are to obtain those authorities while also being "very responsible and how we use them.”

The Army’s marketing arm moved last year from its long-time headquarters near the Pentagon to Chicago in an effort to get closer to DDB Chicago — the firm that won a $4 billion contract to serve as the Army’s full-service ad agency until 2028.

Casey Wardynski, the Army’s assistant secretary for manpower and reserve affairs, told Army Times last summer that the Army marketing team planned to use big data analytics to recruit “Gen Z,” those born in the mid-1990s and early 2000s.

But the analytical focus then was on the Army’s own websites and ad campaigns.

“It won’t be information on kids; it will be information on how campaigns function. Information on media channels. Information about the website and how it’s performing," Wardynski said. “I think that’s kind of flipping it in terms of how some industry may work. … So, we’re very respectful of people’s privacy.”

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