Army campaign puts hip-hop over heroics

Tour: Bypassing traditional pitches, recruiters target minorities with rap contests and magazine subscriptions.

October 23, 2003|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

The Army is experimenting with some bold new recruiting techniques these days.

They include no traditional appeals to patriotism, no heroic war stories by wounded veterans home from Iraq or ruggedly handsome role models in combat fatigues.

Instead, an amateur rap contest and free subscriptions to the popular hip-hop magazine The Source were featured yesterday as the Army put on a "Campus Combat" tour aimed at finding minority recruits at the University of Maryland, College Park.

The Army expects the "Campus Combat" tour to attract thousands of ethnic minorities at five eastern campuses over the next week, and generate thousands of leads to help meet its goal of about 100,000 recruits a year.

About a dozen guys with baggy pants and smooth strides signed on to compete in the rap contest at College Park and dozens more signed up for the magazine. But when it came to the idea of joining the Army, most of the students said thanks, but no thanks.

Asked why he signed up for information about service in the Army, Wayne Paik, a 19-year-old electrical engineering major explained, "I did it for the magazine."

Army recruiters weren't discouraged by the lukewarm response.

The fact that the Army was there at all marks an important change in the way it markets itself, said Col. Thomas Nickerson, the Army's director of strategic outreach.

"We're trying to reach quality men and women, and we cannot do the same thing we've been doing for years," Nickerson said. "We've got to be innovative in our approach. We have to be relevant to segments of the market we want to reach."

Nickerson said the Army is already doing well attracting minorities. About 26.8 of those serving are African-American (11.9 percent are officers) and 8.9 percent are Hispanic (4.3 percent are officers.). But the service faces constant competition for recruits, he noted.

Some campuses have resisted military recruiters, even as their students face a tough job market. If potential recruits have been put off by the simmering conflict in Iraq, the lousy economy was more than making up for that, Nickerson said.

Just how successful the recruiting effort at College Park was won't be known for some time, after a target of 2,500 leads are gathered and some are "converted" into recruits, Nickerson said.

There was no hard sell from the Army yesterday. The recruiters, dressed in their civvies and The Source, brought a collection of young black men and women dressed in Army jerseys to collect the names.

If some of the students weren't thrilled about the possibility of military service, they were impressed by the Army's effort to be relevant.

"I like the idea of the Army seeking a variety of people. They're blending cultures," Paik said.

That was the idea three years ago when the Army dumped its long-running "Be All You Can Be" slogan in favor of "Army of One," a modern tag line created by the Chicago advertising giant Leo Burnett under a multiyear $150 million marketing contract.

The Army doesn't want to give the impression that it's loosening the discipline or encouraging dissent. Rather, it's promoting the idea that each person plays a vital role in the success if the team, Nickerson said.

As part of that effort, Burnett subcontracted with an African-American-focused public relations firm, New York-based Vital Marketing Group, to target minorities. Vital signed a partnership with The Source.

After the Campus Combat contests, other direct mail and online-oriented marketing will be developed at a cost to the Army of about $800,000.

Other partnerships will take the Army into new territory, including NASCAR.

If the Maryland students were sure they would not join the ranks, they were happy to have a free magazine or Army sweat band or T-shirt. Others came to hear their friends freestyle on stage. One winner from each school will be written about in the magazine and receive an outfit from Azzure clothing company.

A Source promoter said about 30 students participated in the contest on the Campus Combat's first stop at the University of Pittsburgh and another 250 signed up for Army information (and the magazine). He expected about the same numbers form Maryland.

The magazine ran radio ads and handed out fliers for about two days before the College Park events, which also included evening concerts.

"We're looking for the next Biggie Smalls, and the Army is looking to increase its popularity among people of ethnicity," said Ousmane Sam, the mobile promotional director and the event's host. "I think we'll both reap the benefits here."

The Army plans to send information and have a recruiter call after the event to tell the students about the "skills training" and "travel and adventure" as well as the $50,000 available for educational purposes and $65,000 to pay back student loans.

Recruits can sign up for as little as 15 months.

Companies trying a new ad technique typically start in a few markets and then expand if sales are good, said John McLaughlin, a Baltimore-based marketing consultant. In the Army's case, the new markets will be other college campuses.

But will it work?

"No matter what you're selling, you don't talk the corporate bit, you have to make them feel there is real rapport," he said. "They seem like they have a sound approach. We'll see how many conversions they get from their leads."

Not everyone believes the Army should be successful.

Rep. Charles B. Rangel, a New York Democrat, introduced legislation in January to reinstate the draft largely because he believes the poor and minorities are represented in the military at rates above their numbers in the general population.

In a statement, Rangel said one of his objectives is "to make it clear that, if there is a war, there should be a more equitable representation of all classes of Americans making the sacrifice for this great country."

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