You see them on trains in North Yorkshire, fresh-faced teenagers struggling with massive kit-bags. Only they are not off to play football or cricket. They are 16-year-olds attached to army training camps in the area, who in a year or two might end up dead or wounded in Afghanistan.
As youth unemployment has soared – almost a million young people are without work in this country – so has army recruitment, on both sides of the Atlantic. In Obama’s America, the armed forces have reached their target numbers for the first time since conscription ended in 1973. Wall Street may be booming but more than one in 10 on Main Street are unemployed and the army is seen as a “job”, providing an income and training.
In Britain, a highly sophisticated marketing campaign has seen numbers asking to join the army soar by 25% in a year despite the rising death toll in Afghanistan, stories about poor equipment and continuing reports about bullying at training schools. With few job openings for young men in particular, it is not hard to see why the promise of learning new skills and the lure of camaraderie should be a pull. So they sign up for 12 years and serve a minimum of four.
Out of the £95 million spent by the army recruiting group deployed in ten regions across Britain, over a quarter goes on marketing campaigns. And increasingly the money is lapped up by the private sector for putting together things like Internet-based packages targeted at young men who spend hours gaming online.
The army’s current recruitment platform was put together by the award-winning interactive marketing company AKQA — best know for its Nike ads as well as other campaigns. A TV and radio campaign drew people to the website when they could play an interactive game, Start Thinking Soldier. The aim was to get young people to return again and again. And it worked. The site received more than a million visits, collecting 250,000 profiles
Many web visitors were invited to a series of events around the country, including the Wakestock festival in Wales and a custom car show in Edinburgh. Once there, visitors could drive a virtual tank and run with full kit. Almost half of the 9,500 who took part opted to receive further information, which in marketing terms is considered exceptionally high.
The moral of this story is twofold. One is that the state never tires of having to develop its message. Sign up to die for Queen and Country has gone out of the window in favour of “introducing democracy” to countries and “nation building”. The result is the same, of course. The ruling classes play war games at the expense of the poor bloody infantry who die on a foreign field not really understanding what they were doing there in the first place.
The second side of this story is that young men will continue to die needlessly while there’s nothing meaningful for them to do at home because the capitalist society they live in can’t provide a job that’s worthwhile and well paid. But that’s ok, because the stock market is booming and house prices may be on the rise again.
Putting casino capitalism out of business could and should be “sold” in a way that appeals to young men every bit as much as the army’s web-based game does. Then instead of invading countries like Afghanistan, poorer nations could be offered support on a non-military, partnership basis. Now there’s a project worth marketing!