Army Should Focus More Recruiting Effort on TV Outreach Rather than Bonuses, New Study Says

November 9, 2023
82nd Airborne Division Chorus performs "God Bless America" at halftime

Six hundred new enlistees and current soldiers were sworn into the Army during a televised NFL game Sunday with some 69,000 people in stands, given the oath of enlistment by Gen. Randy George, the service’s top officer.

The Army band performed the national anthem, Rangers rappelled from the stadium’s rafters, and the 82nd Airborne Division chorus performed “God Bless America.”

It was a bombastic show by the Army during the Atlanta Falcons and Minnesota Vikings game — and what amounted to a televised recruiting pitch to millions of viewers. The game day event comes on the heels of the 82nd Airborne chorus’ showing on the “America’s Got Talent” TV show, which brings in about 6 million views an episode, making it among the most-watched and highest-rated shows in broadcast.

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For an Army trying desperately to appeal to wired Gen Z to fill the ranks, television is still remarkably relevant.

A report released Monday by Rand Corp., the Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said that the Army should spend more money on television ads, finding that the service gets more bang for the buck in attracting potential applicants. The report found that putting more ads on television could be 10 times more beneficial than enlistment bonuses.

“Across all the different scenarios examined, the optimized model recommends an 80% increase in spending on television advertising,” the report found. “The Army should reduce spending on bonuses. The association of bonuses with contract production is relatively small, and a large portion of bonuses are paid to recruits who would have been willing to join for a lower (or no) bonus amount.”

Those bonuses can run up to $50,000, but there has never been clear data on whether they help recruiting. Army officials have generally pointed to the bonuses being used more to incentivize applicants to pick certain career fields, but those applicants were generally assumed to have joined the service regardless.

Last year, the Army spent about 68% of its $104 million advertising budget on television or streaming services, according to internal data reviewed by Military.com. Of that, 16% was spent on traditional broadcast and cable, with A&E, Syfy, BET and the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim being top targets.

Digital ads were mostly spent on YouTube, Hulu and key streaming services for sports including ESPN and NBC Sports. Army planners have noted that, while Gen Z doesn’t watch traditional TV, they still watch live sports.

When the service premiered its return to the ‘Be All You Can Be’ slogan earlier this year, it bought ad space in shows like “Bar Rescue,” “The Office” and “SportsCenter.”

In some cases, those ad buys were less about targeting the potential applicants themselves and, instead, targeted parents and older community influencers such as coaches, pastors and teachers.

The same idea of reaching out to those influential decision-makers was used in November of last year when the service secretaries penned an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal pitching service to young Americans.

In reality, according to Army officials, the effort was aimed at reaching the conservative newspaper’s reader base, which skews much older than the typical fresh enlistee. The message was also meant for Republicans on Capitol Hill and partisan pundits, who have recently laced military service into culture wars, lambasting the services for being more welcoming to women and minority groups.

Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on X @StevenBeynon.

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