No mountain high enough?

The British Army has a mountain to climb as it seeks to attract new recruits, deterred from joining up by the war in Iraq and scandals over bullying and prisoner abuse. The mountain in question is Everest, the world’s highest peak, which will

The Army hopes to address declining recruitment numbers with a reality-TV style ad campaign following a band of soldiers as they scale Mount Everest – but will it be enough to reinvigorate a brand dogged by bad press and seemingly out of step with potential recruits? By David Benady

The British Army has a mountain to climb as it seeks to attract new recruits, deterred from joining up by the war in Iraq and scandals over bullying and prisoner abuse. The mountain in question is Everest, the world’s highest peak, which will form the backdrop for a real-life television advertising recruitment campaign for the Army, breaking this weekend.

A team of 49 British Army soldiers is attempting to scale three Himalayan peaks, and 21 of them are undertaking the challenge of shinning up the gruelling West Ridge of Everest – a route to the top no Briton has ever managed to ascend before.

The mission has been three years in preparation. Its progress can be followed on a dedicated website where people are able to send messages of support – Prime Minister Tony Blair has already sent his own missive. The Everest team will send back regular footage of the soldiers’ exploits, which will be edited by advertising agency Publicis into an ongoing series of video diary-style TV commercials to be aired over the coming eight weeks.

The campaign is the latest attempt to boost flagging recruitment levels and tackle a number of negative perceptions about army life that have put people off signing up during recent years. It will focus on the teamwork, preparation and sense of challenge involved in the mission and suggest that these are the values which army life offers.

Fascinating insight

Along with shots of daredevil mountaineers, we can expect to see close-up footage of squaddies groaning after a hard day’s climbing. The work aims to tap into the reality TV craze by showing soldiers facing real-life challenges – though there are no plans to eject underperformers.

It should provide a fascinating insight into the progress of the mission. But whether it will do much to address the shortfall in army recruits remains to be seen.

Last year’s Ministry of Defence annual report revealed that the total Army intake from civilian life fell by nearly one-third between 2002 and 2005, to 11,600. The Army’s trained strength in 2005 was 1,730 soldiers below the total requirement of 104,170. Army sources claim that this shows an improving picture. It was better than in 2004, when the shortfall was over 3,000. In 2003 it was nearly 5,000. However, the improvement is partly down to restructuring of regiments and a decline in the number of soldiers required.

The MoD report reveals the reasons behind the shortfall. “The Army is having to work hard to maintain recruitment, as market research has shown parental disapproval of the Army as a job has increased, reflecting perceptions of operations in Iraq and of army training and care in the wake of Deepcut [an army barracks in Surrey where an extensive investigation into the deaths of four soldiers between 1995 and 2002 has taken place],” it says. To add to this, there has been the prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq, a video showing a bizarre initiation ceremony for the Royal Marines and campaigns by the families of soldiers killed in Iraq.

Support network

The Everest campaign and other recruitment ads for the Army aim to assuage doubts about the safety of soldiers by emphasizing that they are given thorough training and have the backing of a huge support network, whether they are climbing mountains or going into war zones.

But some doubt remains that an advertising campaign can do much to counteract the persistent negative PR about army life and stop mothers warning their sons not to go to war. Youth marketer Sean Pillot de Chenecey of consultancy Captain Crikey served four years in the Household Cavalry Armoured Regiment, and is sceptical about the new ads. He believes the Army brand is in crisis and no amount of clever advertising can save it.

“The Army brand’s value has gone way down. Only ten years ago it used to be seen almost as the armed wing of Oxfam, doing the right thing in humanitarian operations such as Bosnia. Now the MoD is seen as a completely inept institution which either covers up what is happening in terms of bullying and prisoner abuse, or doesn’t support the soldiers themselves,” he says.

One source says that it is not just parental pressure keeping young men from signing up, more important are the views of friends and peers. “The issue is that this war is the first we have had where, by and large, the majority of the nation hasn’t been behind it. That has had a really bad effect on recruitment,” he adds. To make matters worse, he claims armed forces recruitment media budgets have declined over the past five years, and social trends are militating against youngsters considering a life in the armed forces.

More opportunities

The Army’s traditional recruitment base of young people from deprived areas has been transformed over recent years, with declining youth unemployment and the minimum wage. Opportunities for travel, which were a central pillar of the Army’s recruitment drives until the 1990s, are now cheaply available thanks to budget airfares. An alternative life for many potential recruits is no longer as grim as it once was. Meanwhile, there has been a big rise in the number of teenagers going into higher education.

Another recruitment strategy pursued by the Army is to target youngsters interested in joining through its Camouflage website, which is backed by a direct marketing campaign from TequilaLondon. This collects information on boys and girls who are interested in joining the Army before reaching the requisite age of 16 years and nine months, and keeps them informed about army life, giving them access to the Camouflage website. Tequila claims that 15% of army recruits have been Camouflage members.

However, suggestions that Iraq is sliding towards civil war, leaving British soldiers caught up in a quagmire for years to come, is unlikely to make recruitment any easier. The Army denies the charge that the Everest ads amount to a “don’t mention the war” strategy, and says a separate Publicis TV campaign promoting the infantry with the slogan “Forward as one” will continue, focusing on battlefield situations.

Tackling preconceptions

To resolve its recruitment crisis, the Army needs to address negative images about life in the service and provide motivations to join. The real-life Everest campaign is an interesting attempt to tackle fears about the dangers of army life.

Part of the ad campaign’s appeal will be the tension over whether the team can succeed in their aim of reaching the top. The Army believes that even if weather conditions make the final ascent impossible, the mission will still give it a positive profile among potential recruits. More importantly, they hope it will reassure parents that if their sons and daughters join the Army they will be well looked after by a capable and caring organisation. But after recent combats, this really may be a ridge too far.

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