The National Guard: The Pizza Offensive; Casualties Were Up. Recruitment Was Down. Then Came a Savvy Ad Campaign. How the Guard Got Its Groove Back

Article excerpt

Byline: Dan Ephron

The real hand-wringing began around March of last year, when for a sixth straight month the Army National Guard missed its recruitment goal. Tasked with bringing in about 60,000 new "citizen soldiers" each year, guard brass worried they'd fall short by up to 25 percent in fiscal 2005. A main reason for the decline: long deployments in Iraq and a rising casualty toll for the guard (17 died that month, at a time when guard brigades accounted for 40 percent of U.S. troops in Iraq). To prevent a further slide in sign-ups, recruitment and retention officers began shuttling between their headquarters in Crystal City, Va., and the eighth-floor office of the guard's Arlington ad agency, Laughlin, Marinaccio & Owens. "We had one of those what-are-we-going-to-do moments," recalls Doug Laughlin, who runs LM&O.

What they did--doubling their ad budget, boosting enlistment and recruitment bonuses and adding thousands of recruiters across the country--helped put the guard back on track. From last October to this April, recruitment was up 49 percent over the same period the previous fiscal year. With the military scaling back the guard's deployment in Iraq in recent months, top officers say more brigades are now available to take on other missions: tending to natural disasters at home and, as of last week, helping to police immigration along the Mexican border. But the recruitment ordeal underscores a sobering reality for the entire military: the longer the war in Iraq drags on, the harder recruiters will have to work to keep enlistment up.

The revamped campaign echoed a trend in advertising: less Old Media, more Net, more niche. To appeal to 18- to 25-year-olds, the guard offered free iTunes downloads for surfers willing to scroll through a Web recruitment pitch. …