Sending in the Marines (to Recruit Women)
Marine Corps ads now run in magazines aimed at women
THE Marines are looking for a few good women.
By DOUGLAS QUENQUA
Published: April 21, 2008
Actually, they will take as many as they can get. Faced with the difficulty of recruiting during a long and unpopular war, the United States Marine Corps has started marketing itself to women in a concerted way for the first time. It is running ads in magazines like Shape, Self and Fitness, which appeal mainly to female readers, as well as through more mainstream outlets like “American Idol,” where the message is a unisex one of patriotism rather than macho swagger.
The Marine Corps still runs its traditional ads — during National Basketball Association and National Hockey League games, and in magazines like Sports Illustrated and Men’s Fitness — often showing male recruits parachuting from airplanes, wielding big guns, driving heavy tanks and stampeding across the ground.
But now it is also showing a softer side. In the latest campaign, a print ad shows a female marine striking a martial arts pose in front of a crowd of men who are looking up to her as their leader. The tag line: “There are no female marines. Only marines.”
The campaign is a big departure for the Marine Corps, which started accepting women for clerical duties in 1918 but until last year advertised to them only fitfully. During World War II, the most memorable recruitment ads aimed at women came from the Army and the Navy.
In 1973, when the military dropped the draft in favor of a volunteer force, the Marines introduced its “few good men” slogan and ran at least one spot for women, reaching out to high school graduates and “college gals” with a brochure that had a picture of a flower on it.
In the 1990s, when the Marines Corps was having trouble reaching recruitment goals, it ran a scattering of ads in magazines like Seventeen and Sports Illustrated for Women, using tag lines like “You can look at models, or you can be one” and “Get a makeover that’s more than skin deep.” That outreach “wasn’t as sophisticated as it is now,” said Jay Cronin, management director of JWT, a unit of the WPP Group, which has been the Marine Corps’ advertising agency for more than 60 years.
Mr. Cronin said the current effort was much different because everyone involved took the time to “understand the psychographics,” that is, figuring out which women might actually want to join the military, and why. That is why the campaign aims at athletic women, not just all women graduating from high school, and the messages conveyed are much more egalitarian.
Although most combat jobs are off-limits to them, women make up 6.2 percent of the Marine Corps and go through the same basic training as men.
“We had never done much female outreach,” said Lt. Col. Mike Zeliff, assistant chief of staff for marketing and advertising for the Marines Corps in Quantico, Va. “but there was an opportunity for us to go after the athletic, young woman who would be well suited to graduate from boot camp. We asked ourselves, ‘What can we do to get the message out to these young women?’ ”
Women are not the only ones being courted specifically. The Marines Corps is reaching out to Latinos with ads in La Raza newspaper that emphasize family and honor (“Each unit in the Corps is a family, and each member knows they never stand alone”), and to Arab-Americans with a message about nationality and identity (“I am American. I am Arab. I am a Marine ... I know where I stand”).
“We never used to have much of a targeting strategy — we were just looking for 18-24-year-old men” said Colonel Zeliff. “Today, we are more niche than ever.”
Given the drumbeat of bad news from the lingering conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, where American military casualties recently topped 4,000, the sell can be a tough one. Sentiment against recuiting has flared on some campuses, as well as in Berkeley, Calif., where the City Council approved a measure in February asking Marine recruiters to vacate their downtown office.
Dana Balicki, national media coordinator for Code Pink, a women’s peace group, called the Marine campaign “just another example of potentially misleading tactics used to sell the war to young people, and especially young women.”
Talking specifically about the print ad that shows a woman in a leadership role, Ms. Balicki said, “She’s supposed to look like she’s being empowered, but she’s in a typical self-defense stance. After knowing the statistics and talking to women who have experienced sexual trauma or violence in the military, it’s hard to think of it as empowerment.”
As opposition against the war continues, Congress has ordered the Marines and the Army to augment their forces. All branches of the military have been reaching out to nontraditional audiences, but none have done so quite as emphatically as the Marine Corps, which is the fourth-largest of the five branches (the Coast Guard is the smallest). Its advertising budget is $157.4 million this year, up from $152.4 million in fiscal year 2007.
The ad featuring a woman commander is intended to appeal to young women who are weary of being separated from boys and men in sports and are eager to prove themselves on a larger stage, said Marshall Lauck, JWT’s lead executive on the Marines account.
“The message is that the Marine Corps offers a unique opportunity to earn that title and be shoulder to shoulder with your male counterparts,” Mr. Lauck said. “That’s an important aspect for the young women seeking that challenge, women seeking an opportunity for a great and selfless endeavor.”
The Marines also broke from tradition earlier this year by running a 60-second spot during several episodes of “American Idol.” Titled “America’s Marines,” the ad featured marines standing in formation against various national landmarks. It was intended to appeal to a general audience, including parents and other people whom military recruiters refer to as “influencers.”
That ad “helped us get that female audience that we’re looking for,” said Steve Harding, a partner at the Marine Corps’ media agency, MindShare (which places ads), which is also part of WPP.
The effect of the publicity is difficult to measure. There has been a small increase in the number of female recruits — to 2,507 in 2007 from 2,320 in 2006 and 2,282 in 2005— but the Marine Corps says it is particularly pleased by the volume of responses to the campaign. The magazine ads include reply cards, and, Mr. Harding said, they yielded more than 1,044 “qualified leads” in 2007, though only two turned into enlistments.
One is Ana Castillo, a senior at William Chrisman High School in Independence, Mo., who mailed in a reply card last September after seeing an ad in a women’s fitness magazine in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. Her older brother is a Navy veteran, and while she had been seriously considering joining the military, the ad prompted her to take action.
Ms. Castillo seems to be precisely the kind of young woman being sought by the advertising. She plays soccer and softball at high school and says she is hungry to prove herself on more dangerous fields.
“The Marines are the toughest,” she said in a telephone interview. “They have the longest boot camp, the highest standards. The Marines want people to actually want to be in the Marines, not just be in it for the money.”
It was those traits that Ms. Castillo saw reflected in the magazine ad, as well as in the words of the recruiter who called her a week after she mailed the reply card. She will turn 18 on June 24 and plans to leave for boot camp on July 7, after her high school graduation.
While the Marines seem to be taking the lead, other branches of the military are increasing their niche efforts as well. The Navy, for example, has started using the Web to recruit women for nontraditional jobs like aviation mechanics, placing banner ads on portals like Yahoo and movie and video game Web sites.
“We did e-mail blasts to women only, and what we found was lots of women out there have an interest” in joining the Navy, but they did not know what jobs were available to them, said Kathleen Donald, an executive vice president and account director with Navy’s ad firm, Campbell-Ewald, a unit of the Interpublic Group of Companies.
Although military officials cite a number of reasons for their recruiting woes — high obesity rates in America, for example, and young people’s shifting attitudes toward military service — the fact is that the images from the battlefront are hard to counteract.
“We’re in the midst of a very difficult war, and the ground forces are taking a pounding,” said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer and military analyst at the Lexington Institute, a research firm.
“I think what the Marine Corps is finding is that even recruiting for a small force in the midst of an unpopular war is becoming something of a challenge,” he said. “They can no longer ignore people purely on the basis of demographic or inscriptive characteristics.”
Maj. Wes Hayes, a spokesman for the Marine Corps Recruiting Command, said in response to Mr. Thompson’s comment, “Look at our fiscal year missions. Since May 2005, we’ve met or exceeded our recruiting goals. Remember, recruiting is a marathon and not a sprint.”
Ms. Castillo said her parents needed some persuading to let her join, despite her brother’s experience in the Navy.
“My mom, well, I’m her little girl,” she said. “She wants me to go to school. My dad was proud. He wanted me to go into the military, but he wants me to go into the Air Force.”
Like anyone entering the Marine Corps today, Ms. Castillo is keenly aware of where she is probably headed. “I’m O.K. with it,” she said. “If I get sent to Iraq, I’m going to be ready.”