Fighting for attention

The Navy's new recruitment campaign stresses aid work over combat. But, asks Mira Katbamna, does it also help spin the official line on Iraq?

It used to be so simple - one scary-looking general guy, one accusing finger and a slogan so convincing (or terrifying, depending on how cowardly you are) that most of us can still quote it today. Everyone remembers Kitchener's "Your Country Needs YOU" but nowadays it's not so easy for the armed services to get the attention of 16-to-18 year olds - most of them are too busy downloading ring tones.

Getting their attention is not the only problem. According to The Times' iGeneration survey published recently, 57 per cent of twentysomethings would only fight for their country if they "agreed with the reasons for conflict" and 19 per cent said that they would not take up arms "under any circumstances". Bill Wilcox, the marketing manager responsible for the Navy's national recruitment strategy, agrees that it is no longer enough to say: "Join the Navy, See the World!" or even "Be a Gunner! Be an Engineer!"

Traditionally, service adverts have focused on individual specialisms, with straplines like "Be the Best" encouraging potential recruits to focus on what they can learn and do as part of the military. As Tony Harris, a managing partner at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, who have held the Navy's advertising account for more than 20 years, explains: "It used to be all about saying you could be a jumpjet pilot or a gunner, and isn't that just so much more interesting than being a pizza-delivery boy or sitting on the dole." Wilcox explains that for the new campaign they decided to go for a new approach. "The current campaign presents a new proposition," he explains. "We are focusing on what the Navy does on a global perspective and the individual's role in that."

In practice, that means a huge departure from the usual grime, guts and endurance of Navy advertising, not least because both ads use a United Nations-type backdrop to ask: "Who is going to help?" and humanitarian scenarios - one involving a medic and refugees, and the other involving a gunner about to face rebel forces. The ads are fast-paced, punchy, and designed to look like movie trailers - but the focus is very much on peacekeeping and humanitarian work.

Another new departure for the Navy is the focus on women. "This was the first time we featured a woman up that close," Harris says. "But it was important because the Navy is a mixed career - they recruit an awful lot of women."

For Tony Harris this new approach is deliberate and essential. "Fifty years ago it was fine to say 'I'm going to join the Navy' - nowadays there will be a lot of people saying: 'What do you want to take orders for?' It goes against our modern ideas of freedom - so we need to give potential recruits the arguments to face that opposition down." The implication seems to be that mates matter - and that joining the Navy is just not as cool as working for an NGO.

Harris also points out that since the Cold War, the Navy no longer engages in sea battles or defends sea trade - and so many people don't really know what naval men do. "We wanted to show all the work they are involved in with the idea of 'global guardians'." In fact, the "global guardians" tag fits perfectly with the tasks Wilcox highlights. "We have ships responsible for patrolling UK waters to make sure fish stocks aren't over-fished. At the moment there's a Navy ship over in Jamaica, doing what it can to help."

Clearly, much of the day-to-day work of the Navy is, contrary to expectation, about helping people rather than bombing them - but how did they feel about taking this approach while troops are fighting in Iraq? It's an understandably touchy subject - before answering any questions about Iraq, Wilcox wants to know: "Where are you from? Do you have a personal stake in this?" But otherwise he doesn't think there is a problem with adverts that focus on assisting the UN. "I'm proud of what we have done in Iraq, really proud and I wish we could have exploited it more." Unsurprisingly, Harris is quick to point out that Iraq is a political issue, not a communications one. But he does accept that he has to take the current political context into account. "We've had to be very sensitive," he says, pointing out that the advert is not screened at inappropriate times, such as during children's programmes or after news bulletins.

As well as getting approval within the Navy, Wilcox and Harris consulted much more widely than usual, with the First Sea Lord, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the MoD and the Cabinet Office all involved. As Harris points out: "We were aware that if something happened we would have to act swiftly to remove the ad from air."

Tom Marriage, a senior researcher at the youth research agency 2CV, thinks choosing television is interesting. "Targeted cinema and 'lads' mags' would be much more efficient methods of reaching potential recruits than the 'splatter gun' of television," he says. In fact, the adverts did run in the cinema before moving to television, and the creative work extends to five print and three radio executions which focus on individual roles within the navy. But with limited budgets, why run a potentially controversial top-level television advert at an uncertain time, especially since, as Wilcox says, military recruiting always increases at times of military conflict?

Harris says the TV campaign was booked in advance, and they couldn't, in his words, say: "Oh, we'd better leave a gap there because there might be a war." But he adds that doing television is an important part of the overall mix. "Secondary audiences are also very important. You can't beat a bit of telly if you want to get lots of people interested - reaching mums and dads, peers, opinion-formers." And that seems to be at the heart of this TV campaign - not potential recruits, but everyone else.

The adverts were delivered by the Royal Navy and Y&R, in partnership with the Central Office of Information, an agency of the Cabinet Office. David Miller, professor of sociology at the University of Strathclyde and the editor of Tell Me Lies: Propaganda and Media Distortion in the Attack on Iraq, thinks that privatisation has changed the role of the CoI, traditionally the body that enabled government to produce public-information adverts.

"CoI has changed dramatically in the past 20 years - they used to act as a break on government policy - now they are there to advance government policy and they do cross the line between objectives and government propaganda."

Is it simply conspiracy theory to suggest that the timing and scope of the campaign enables the Government to benefit from positive feelings about the good work of the Navy - and reflect some glory on recent events? Tom Marriage isn't convinced. "It might make you reappraise your view of the Navy, but if you were anti-war in the first place I doubt seeing this ad would change your mind." But Professor Miller has no doubts. "Of course, this is straightforward propaganda. Probably Tony and Alastair didn't sit down and say 'Oh, we must think about this,' but there is a clear conspiracy of interest. The MoD has the biggest PR department in government, and hundreds of people spinning a government line: it wields a huge amount of power."

Where does informing the public end and advertising government policy begin? It is impossible to say. When asked about the negative feeling about the war, Harris admits that the Navy's humanitarian work does have the potential to soothe feelings. "If anything can mitigate some of the bad feeling that might be it. People's bad feeling was against the war, not the services."

But for Wilcox it is straightforward. Fundamentally, he says, the campaign was put on television, despite the difficulties, because of the need to tell recruits, and the public, about the wide variety of work the Navy undertakes. "We thought there was a risk, but there was a potential power in those ads that we knew it was important to communicate."

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