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All We Could Be: How an Advertising Campaign Helped Remake the Army

By Tom Evans

In December of 1999, Advertising Age, the principal trade publication of the advertising industry, issued a retrospective look at advertising focusing on “the top one hundred campaigns of the 20th Century.” Number 18 was BE ALL YOU CAN BE, which started promoting Army enlistment just twenty-five years ago this past January and was the slogan for Army recruitment advertising until it was replaced in 2001. While no one in the advertising business could quibble with the choice, it would have been unforeseeable just ten years earlier, when the beginning of the All-Volunteer Force was marked by an unprecedented ten weeks of flashy television commercials “Paid for by the U.S. Army.” Although N. W. Ayer, the ad agency that created the BE ALL YOU CAN BE campaign, was then the oldest in the nation, its client was inexperienced as a big time advertiser and not culturally well adapted to the task. One of the things old soldiers found most disagreeable about the All-Volunteer concept was the idea of employing techniques used in selling toothpaste and chewing gum to promote service to the nation.

The editors applied ad industry standards in compiling their list, with campaigns that made the cut having attention-getting slogans, clear sales points, inventive copywriting, good audio-visual production values, and well-crafted print layouts. Strategic objectives would have been met and, flashes in the advertising pan being not unknown, staying power would certainly be a consideration. BE ALL YOU CAN BE advertising unquestionably did well on all these scores, but the advertising professionals could only guess at the lift given to the spirits of those working in Army recruiting when they turned on their televisions and heard Jake Holmes cutting loose with the new Army song, a lift that was badly needed after highly publicized recruiting failures. Although a recovery of sorts was underway, the jury was still out on whether or not a recruiting program that had stumbled badly in 1979 could produce soldiers equipped to operate the high-tech systems then entering the Army inventory and fight the kind of battles envisioned in coming decades. Army recruiters needed to be all they could be, and having so persistent and spirited a reminder of the fact was a decided asset.

The public first saw BE ALL YOU CAN BE advertising during the 1981 New Year’s college football bowl games, but most U.S. Army Recruiting Command (USAREC) members, including the 8,000 recruiting NCOs, got their first taste at Recruiting Battalion conferences held early in December 1980. A selection of the new ads capped a thirty minute film featuring Commanding General Maxwell R. Thurman that had been shot just two weeks earlier in a mid-town Manhattan studio. It was not the usual commander’s pep talk, just as MG Thurman was not the usual recruiting commander. Briefly, he announced a new recruiting era in which the quality of recruits must be a foremost consideration. After coming up 16,000 short in 1979, USAREC had made its 1980 recruiting mission, but only an unsatisfactory fifty-four percent of the enlistees were High School Diploma Graduates (HSDG) with “upper half” test scores. The Army could no longer afford the high first-term attrition experienced by high school drop outs, and new recruits had to be smart enough to handle the more demanding training required for many Military Occupational Specialties (MOS). Recruiters would receive new tools to help them focus their efforts on bringing in the kind of prospects needed. Guidance counselors, the senior recruiters stationed at Military Enlistment Processing Stations (MEPS) who actually negotiate enlistment contracts, would get more precise direction to help them fill priority training slots. The role of commanders in handing out recruiting missions and reporting performance would be rationalized. Missions assigned to individual recruiters would be challenging but achievable.

This vision of a very imminent future was the end product of Thurman’s first year at USAREC. He had arrived in November 1979 to a command laboring under several clouds, with news of the Fiscal Year 1979 recruiting shortfall still fresh and newspapers full of revelations about recruiters dismissed for falsifying high school diplomas and concealing police records.

Thurman was the Army’s top analyst, with the reputation of being both tireless and tough-minded. As the Director of Programs, Analysis and Evaluation (PA&E) on the Army staff, he was well positioned to dig into the Army’s problems. He came to USAREC with a good general appreciation of both the significance and possible reasons for recruiting failure, and set about grappling with the specifics as soon as the change of command ceremony was over. Introductory staff briefings were long and intense. Soon officers well known to him or who were familiar with his approach to problem solving started showing up to assume key positions on the USAREC staff. The PAE Directorate blossomed to twice its former size and newly arrived captains and majors applied their post-graduate school analytical skills to such critical issues as how best to distribute the recruiting mission across the force. Experts from the Army Research Institute and RAND Corporation became regular visitors.

When MG Thurman started traveling about his command, recruiters and commanders found themselves subjected to more searching questions than they were used to, and word quickly got around that falling back on the well-established USAREC custom of blowing smoke when soldiers were not sure of the answer could be hazardous, as could too many glances at the clock when the session ran into the dinner hour. In February, brigade and battalion commanders gathered (with some trepidation) at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for an intense working session to improve command and control by standardizing operational systems that had evolved differently among the five recruiting brigades. That it was not to be a traditional USAREC “sales conference” was signaled by the location. Lawton, Oklahoma, may in some seasons be a garden spot, but on that winter weekend it was decidedly bleak, a bleakness augmented by the fact that arrangements had not been made to heat Snow Hall, the building where the meeting was held. Recruiting commanders and USAREC staffers sat shivering in jackets and scarves through seemingly interminable workshops dedicated to arcane, if important, aspects of recruiting administration.

The motivational part of the session was reserved for Sunday afternoon when General Edward C. “Shy” Meyer, the Chief of Staff of the Army, lectured the group on the importance of recruiting success. His talk was memorable for a revealing bit of repartee. Seeking to lighten the mood at the conclusion of his remarks, his eyes settled on a one-time golfing companion in the front row. “What’s your handicap these days, Zaldo?” he asked, and the answer shot back, “General Thurman Sir.”

Thurman’s first substantial brush with advertising occurred in September 1979, two months before he became the recruiting commander. A USAREC-led team of N.W. Ayer media analysts visited the Pentagon to make the case for reprogramming funds to increase the ad budget by $63 million and allow front loading of the media schedule to help recruiters get a good start at the beginning of the school year. His support, as PAE, would be necessary to any such action, so the briefings began in his office. That his first encounter with the advertising agency was a media presentation was fortuitous on several counts. Agency presentations to top client management tend to emphasize strategy and presentation of new ads, with the dry (and not very visual) subject of media getting short shrift. However, most of the money goes to buy media space and time and the best advertising messages cannot work if there is not enough of it. Old artilleryman Thurman took an immediate interest, possibly equating media weight with rounds on the target. He was obviously delighted with the science of media scheduling and the extent to which alternatives could be quantified. He was also impressed by the professionalism of the agency people.

MG Thurman’s impact on the advertising program was certainly great, but his role has been misunderstood by some of his Army contemporaries. Some believe that the note pad on which he first wrote BE ALL YOU CAN BE is preserved in the USAREC commanding general’s office (the actual author was an N.W. Ayer copywriter named Earl Carter) and there have been suggestions that he was high-handed in dealing with agency executives. A published account has him learning what he needed to know about advertising by examining magazine ads and says “he privately believed he could do the job of the ad agency suits in his spare time.”

If he did feel that way, he certainly concealed it well in monthly visits to N.W. Ayer and other planning sessions. He learned a great deal about advertising from the agency professionals, and they learned most of what was important about the recruiting mission from him. It was an ideal exchange and exemplar of a highly collaborative relationship. He did not presume to teach them their business, but was clear about what he needed from them, insisting that recommendations be well supported, wherever possible with empirical data, and alternatives be explored. His end of the bargain was to support their need for market research, product knowledge and adequate budgets. In short, he was a good client, and they loved working for him.

In any event, the September meeting proceeded along the lines of many others to come. Thurman opened it by explaining the budget process and what had to happen in order for the reprogramming action to succeed. By the end of the agency briefing, he had satisfied himself that a good case for more advertising dollars could be made, and he had also mastered the pertinent advertising lingo. When the group moved on to brief the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel (DCSPER), LTG Robert Yerks, the experts sat silent as he carried on most convincingly about reach and frequency targets and Gross Rating Points (GRPs).

Getting MG Thurman involved at this point probably also helped overcome the negative influence of Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) advertising consultants Canter, Achenbaum and Heeken, who had recommended no increase in advertising budgets until the Army could find ways to make its offer more attractive. “There is ample evidence,” their report had said, “that the Army is now offering a product which is being rejected by the target market. And it is axiomatic in marketing that you can’t sell an inferior product with advertising.” If their advice had been followed it is unlikely that the BE ALL YOU CAN BE campaign, although it might ultimately have succeeded, could have been launched with the media weight that made it an immediate difference-maker.

The Canter, Achenbaum and Heekin report conclusion that an “inferior product” was being presented was arrived at through some debatable inferences from survey data, but there may well have been a problem with the THIS IS THE ARMY campaign that had been introduced in 1978. As it was being developed, the Army was defending itself against a report by Congressional staffers who claimed that troops they interviewed in Europe had been lied to by recruiters and misled by advertising. Democratic Congressman (and retired Marine) John Murtha of Pennsylvania was highly critical of advertising that showed off-duty soldiers in Europe visiting a castle. To counteract the impression that the serious side of Army service was being underplayed, the new ads would be more informative, even if some of the information might not be considered by recruiters to be helpful. And recruiters struggling to make mission did pick up quickly on the negatives. A print ad headline that read “In Europe You’re a Soldier 24 Hours a Day, but the Rest of your Time is Your Own” was greeted with approval in the Pentagon, but struggling recruiters did not appreciate the humor. A television spot featuring an infantryman fording a stream and sinking out of sight got “Hooahs” and applause when it was shown to non-USAREC Army audiences, but recruiters bitterly observed that the ad was a big favorite among their Navy and Air Force competitors.

The THIS IS THE ARMY campaign ads were a bit defensive in tone and the layouts were not particularly stylish, being cluttered and containing more information than an advertisement should be expected to convey. However, some of the copy was very good, and the introductory THIS IS THE ARMY ad contained this foreshadowing of things to come: “There’s no military hardware to replace the human heart. No computer to out-think the mind. We need people. We are people. So, if we ask you to be a good soldier, we mean be the best person you can be.”

Whatever the deficiencies of THIS IS THE ARMY advertising, what MG Thurman learned in his early meetings about the advertising development process and contracting lead times convinced him that replacing it would take time. There was, in any event, a need for new ads to promote the Veterans Educational Assistance Program (VEAP), which had been created as a replacement for the Korean War era G.I. Bill and was viewed as a means to penetrate the high quality “college bound” market. Most of the additions to the advertising pool during 1980 were VEAP ads. OSD and Congressional analysts had viewed the G. I. Bill, which had been allowed to expire in 1976, as an inefficient recruiting incentive because all enlistees received it whether or not they were interested in college money. This objection was overcome by making the VEAP an option enlistees could select by agreeing to contribute a monthly sum from their pay, those savings to be matched two-for-one by the government. It was a complicated proposition to deal with in advertising, made more so by the fact that the Army wanted to add a bonus to make it more attractive, which precipitated a nine-month test designed to prove that the Army “kicker” would not disadvantage the other services. The test required that variations of the offer would be made in different regions of the country, which required not only different ads but media schedules that were carefully controlled to ensure one or other of the variants did not get more than its share of support. It was the kind of complexity that MG Thurman enjoyed tackling, but it did not make for efficient advertising.

Planning for what was to be the BE ALL YOU CAN BE campaign launch began in early 1980 in a meeting to discuss the campaign development cycle. Throughout the 1970s, it had been the practice for the three commands authorized to place orders against the advertising contract to work separately with the agency in developing recommendations for presentation to the Department of Army in June. Ideally, the recommendations would be approved and ads would be developed for airing during the first fiscal quarter, which was, more importantly for recruiters, the beginning of the school year. USAREC was responsible for advertising to support active and reserve enlisted recruiting, but was also tasked with providing advertising for officer acquisition programs run by the Surgeon General, the Judge Advocate General, and the Corps of Chaplains. U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command was responsible for Reserve Officer Training Corps advertising and the Office of the Chief of Army Reserve acquired advertising agency help for its public affairs program. MG Thurman, when he learned of this arrangement, wanted better coordination among those Army elements, and so all of the “players” were invited to a meeting intended as an official kick-off of the campaign development effort. It was held on 1-2 April at a Ramada Inn in Stamford, Connecticut, a location chosen at the last minute because a New York City transit strike had made the Manhattan offices of N. W. Ayer inaccessible.

The first paragraph of a memorandum prepping MG Thurman for the trip said, “We should arrive about 1300 and will meet with Dave Means, Nelson van Sant, Ted Regan, Lou De Joseph, Lou Donato and some research people. The discussion will cover the creation, presentation, review, evaluation, and execution of advertising messages. Ayer will offer information on the process they follow, costs, lead times, pros and cons of testing, what can and cannot be measured. They will, I’m sure, draw on their experience with other clients.” As it happens, Lou Hagopian, President of N.W. Ayer, also turned up for that session, and he brought with him executives from other Ayer accounts, such as AT&T, DuPont, and Avon. Between them, they were able to describe the strengths and weaknesses of different pre-production testing techniques. By the end of the meeting, an agreement was reached on the most appropriate testing regimen for Army advertising.

The next day Ayer executives presented their analysis of market research and demographic data bearing on the targeting of Army advertising and suggested appropriate communications strategies. They described a technique for segmenting survey data to focus on the brightest of respondents and those whose attitudes toward military service made them seem at least open to persuasion. Beyond that they described planned qualitative research that would explore ways to “reposition” the Army image to make it more attractive or less objectionable.

MG Thurman concluded the session by stating his view that the new advertising must be strategically sound, based as much as possible on research and thoroughly tested before going on the air. He also stated that there should be a single overarching theme for all Army advertising. There was some opposition to this idea—the officer program proponents wanted their advertising to maintain a distinctive look—but he carried the day, and BE ALL YOU CAN BE ended up being the signature for all Army ads.

The next step in the development process came a month later when Ayer presented the results of their positioning study. Ayer’s “Developmental Lab” involved exposing representative groups of individuals meeting in twelve geographically dispersed locations to develop concept ads representing six different views of Army service. The six “positions” represented the Army as, respectively, a place to experience personal challenge; a place where one will encounter bright people; a good step in career development; a place to learn modern technology; a good and necessary experience; and a way to serve one’s country. After seeing the concept ads, the subjects filled out questionnaires and also engaged in group discussions.

The responses revealed a good familiarity with Army benefits and a general belief that Army service was worthwhile, but “not for me.” The only ads that seemed to make them reconsider that last qualification were the ones that positioned the Army as a modern, high-tech organization with “more aircraft than United Airlines and more computers than IBM.” This finding was not totally unexpected—the greater attraction of the Navy and Air force due to their high-tech image was long standing. And it would, until quite recently, have been problematic, because portraying Korean War and even World War II vintage weapons systems then in service as “high-tech” would have strained credibility. However, Thurman knew more than most how extensively the Army was modernizing, and he gave the agency the green light to develop ads that would consign “Willie and Joe” to the Army’s past. The results of their work were revealed when he and a few USAREC staff members visited N.W. Ayer on the 11-12 June preparatory to the presentation of recommendations to the Army Advertising Council, an ad hoc committee chaired by the DCSPER that met as needed to review advertising program development. The Advertising Policy Council meeting was scheduled for 16 June, in the DCSPER Conference Room.

BE ALL YOU CAN BE was one of four slogans that had been selected by Lou Di Joseph, Creative Director on the Army account, from sixteen that had been produced by his staff of copywriters and artists. These four were used to create four different campaigns, each represented by a selection of print ad layouts and television commercial storyboards. The process is a familiar one in the advertising business, although the alternatives are not always so thoroughly fleshed out for the client. In this case, the agency knew enough about Thurman’s modus operandi to realize he would want to present his superiors with good evidence that alternatives had been thoroughly explored. As the four proposals were presented, BE ALL YOU CAN BE did not jump out as a clear winner. The going-in favorite was probably JOIN TOMORROW TODAY because it most forcefully expressed the intention to push high technology. However, not all subjects to be treated in advertising would involve advanced technology, and that made its lack of universal pertinence a limitation. Other kinds of objections applied to THE ADVANTAGE OF YOUR AGE and ARMY. WE’LL SHOW YOU HOW. When the USAREC party left for the flight home to Fort Sheridan, the decision had been made. The Ayer creative team went to work producing final versions for display in the Pentagon. Music had been contracted for and advertising songwriter Jake Holmes was standing by to go into action as soon as a title choice was made known. Lyrics were finalized, music was scored, and the song was recorded in a weekend session.

The Advertising Policy Council meeting was carefully choreographed. MG Thurman opened with a recruiting update and a description of direction given to the agency to create advertising that would help recruiters achieve their ambitious missions. Nelson van Sant, Army account group supervisor, laid out the campaign rationale and outlined strategic objectives. N.W. Ayer Executive Vice President Ted Regan spoke about the ad development process and reviewed the alternative advertising concepts that were arrayed on panels around the room. Then Lou Hagopian stepped up to the podium to announce the winner. The lights went down and a montage of soldier portraits and action scenes appeared on the screen to the accompaniment of the BE ALL YOU CAN BE music. The meeting closed with a somewhat anticlimactic presentation of ad production time lines. High expectations had been created and Thurman wanted everyone to understand that the commitment to thorough pre-production testing and the need to attain the highest production values meant the new advertising would not be seen for another six months.

While it took six months to get BE ALL YOU CAN BE on the air, the slogan and general aspect of the campaign stayed there for twenty years, a goodly age in the world of advertising. The secret of its longevity cannot be pinpointed exactly. William D. Tyler, writing in Advertising Age, cited its universal appeal, saying it hits a psychological bulls-eye, appealing to the dropout as well as the high school graduate. The Army was not interested in the dropouts, but it was important that the appeal extended to the recruiters, who cheered the first appearance of the ads on screen at their December 1980 sales conferences. Furthermore, the ads also quickly became popular with serving soldiers and retirees, something that could not be said for all Army advertising before or since.

The general nature of the sentiment expressed by the slogan helped prolong its life, as it was possible to demonstrate you could be all you could be in a variety of ways: by learning marketable skills, by earning money for college, by serving your country. The point was illustrated by the first print ad. A dramatic graphic of soldiers rappelling from a helicopter and a headline that read “Why Should the Army Be Easy, Life Isn’t” pushed physical challenge in the style of earlier Army advertising, but then the ad managed to hit the hi-tech button with copy that read “In the modern Army, the Cavalry flies, the Infantry rides and the Artillery can hit a fly in the eye 15 miles away. It’s a printed circuit, solid state, computerized Army.” Other ads featured dramatic visuals of new Army weapons and put a high-tech slant on new opportunities for women.

As information from tracking surveys indicated that the objective of repositioning the Army as a technical service was being achieved, it was possible to shift the emphasis to heavy promotion of an approved version of VEAP, renamed the Army College Fund, which was also a good fit for BE ALL YOU CAN BE. When a new advertising agency, Young and Rubicam, won the contract in 1986, they were surprised to learn that their proposed new slogan, GET AN EDGE ON LIFE, would not be replacing the old standby. The new thrust of the campaign, based on labor market research that showed how military service helped young people succeed when they returned to civilian life, was also nicely summed up by BE ALL YOU CAN BE.

The victories traditionally celebrated in the military occur on the battlefield, and by comparison advertising seems an ephemeral matter. But it is important that the Army learned to make use of this civilian skill because it helped build the kind of force today’s soldiers can be proud of. A reason for pride was summarized by a one-time critic. Writing in the May 1986 issue of ADWEEK, Alvin Achenbaum said “It isn’t difficult to recount the marketing success stories of new products, but harder to recall instances in which a troubled established product has been turned around as a consequence of marketing. Miller High Life comes to mind, but that was almost 15 years ago.” He devoted the rest of his column to a description of the rare bird he had in mind, the turnaround of Army recruiting in 1981 and the creation of BE ALL YOU CAN BE.