The front-page story in the Sunday business section of The New York Times is all about the military's stepped-up effort to recruit new soldiers. The business part of the story is the millions of dollars in tax money now on offer to Madison Avenue firms that can put a good spin on the idea of joining the military in the era of Iraq, Abu Ghraib, and the amorphous and potentially eternal "war on terror."
The Army, surprise, surprise, has had the toughest time among military branches meeting recruitment goals in recent years. Not coincidentally, it is also the biggest spender on corporate advertising: doubling its advertising budget since 2000 to almost $290 million this year, the Times reports. Last year, the federal government spent about $1.2 billion on advertising, much of it for the military, putting it right up there among Madison Avenue big fish like Pepsi and Home Depot.
In October, the military will launch a new TV ad campaign using the innovative idea of trying to sell military service to reluctant parents, particularly mothers. A close-up picture of a young black woman's face peers out of one Defense Department ad. The TV ad features a not-so-subtle picture of a checkbook and calculator on the kitchen table. In the script, the young woman pleads with her mom (the viewer), "That's why I want to enlist in the military: It'll be good for my career."
Having just figured out how hard it will be to help this bright young girl fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor, you, her mom, are directed to look at the Defense Department website for more information.
Should you gamble your precious daughter's life in order to pay for college and help her get a leg up? Let the military help you figure it out!
One of the many dismaying aspects of this story is the transfer of tax dollars from the public, through the Pentagon, to corporate advertisers. Instead of spending public funds to reduce the pressure on American families that are having a harder and harder time affording college, we are paying Madison Avenue firms to exploit their dilemma. There is plenty of money to be made in military recruitment, apparently. Even Spike Lee got into the game with a catchy ad for the Navy.
But Democrat Charles Rangel of New York points out that black and Hispanic families in his district, who are bombarded by military recruiters, are not stupid--they know what the military services are offering them, and what the risks are. They know some of the 1,800 soldiers killed in Iraq. And they are angry about the way their kids are being targeted.
The real ugliness of the slick military ad campaign is the underlying message: As a society, we won't help you put your kid through college, but we could use her body on the front lines. She might have a shot at success that way. Then again, we might just kill her.
Ruth Conniff covers national politics for The Progressive and is a voice of The Progressive on many TV and radio programs.
© 2005 The Progressive