National Guard Taps Star Power
By Amanda DeBard, Special to Stateline
Moviegoers across the country are seeing some unexpected faces on the big screen talking up the Army National Guard.
Rock stars Kid Rock and 3 Doors Down have teamed up with race car driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. in ads featuring them as the newest boosters of the state militias.
The ads, which started playing last month in every state in more than 5,000 movie theaters, will continue through October and are part of a $24 million recruiting campaign targeting 18- to 24-year-olds using some of their favorite media - movies and music.
The campaign aims to build Guard enrollment as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to tap into the state-based units. National Guard soldiers make up as much as half the ground troops in Iraq, with more than 224,000 Army National Guard members having served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Guard's largest mobilization since World War II. An additional 25,000 are leaving for Iraq this fall, and 14,000 are deploying to Iraq and Kuwait in the spring.
Sgt. Kenneth L. Boice, an Army National Guard recruiter in Hutchinson, Kan., said the ads are helpful and were popular at the Kansas State Fair this year.
"When you said 'National Guard' before, nobody had a real idea what it was or what it did. But now these big-name celebrities have made it more well-known to the public," Boice said.
In January 2007, President Bush asked Congress to grow the Army to fulfill demands of its service around the globe. The Army's target is 74,200 new recruits by 2010 and 8,200 for the National Guard.
Normally under the command of the country's 50 governors for local duty, such as responding to storm-ravaged areas hit by this season's hurricanes and flooding, the Guard also functions as a reserve force for the regular military and can be activated by the president for national security reasons.
After Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Guard members briefly provided increased security at airports. Besides serving overseas, the Guard now heads security at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other small operations under its federal mission.
"From a marketing perspective, we looked at how many people we need to bring on board and what type of message will get us there," said Julie Muir, a deputy in the Army National Guard's advertising branch. "This ad (campaign) is designed to facilitate those kinds of recruiting numbers."
Kid Rock's appreciation for the military and military families made him an ideal candidate for the ad, Muir said. He donated money from a January 2001 concert to military personnel injured in the terrorist bombing of the USS Cole and to families of those killed in the attack, played a concert this summer for troops serving in the Middle East, and participates in U.S.O. events world-wide.
While Kid Rock and 3 Doors Down are geared toward younger viewers, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and NASCAR are hugely popular with different sorts of fans and older crowds - also heavily recruited by the Guard, Muir said. Earnhardt drove the car co-sponsored by the National Guard at NASCAR's Sprint Cup series this year, following NASCAR stars Casey Mears, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, who also have driven the Guard-sponsored car.
The movie theater ad running before PG-13 and R-rated movies shows clips of Dale Earnhardt Jr. zooming past cheering fans in the National Guard car, Guard members fighting on the ground and in the air, as well as Kid Rock singing " Warrior," a song he wrote for the campaign.
The "Citizen Soldier" music video shown before PG-rated movies sets footage from past wars to the 3 Doors Down song. All funding to produce the ads, posters and other promotional merchandise was approved by Congress for National Guard advertising, recruiting and retention. Kid Rock and 3 Doors Down also were compensated for writing the songs.
The Guard was running ahead of its goal of 351,133 soldiers serving by Sept. 30, the last day of fiscal year 2008. According to enrollment numbers released Sept. 10, 362,014 are signed up, or more than 3 percent over the target.
"While this is really very good for us, we hope to bring in a couple thousand more," Muir said.
Being over target hasn't always been the case. In fiscal year 2005, the Guard missed its goal of 350,000 and ended the year with 333,177 soldiers.
"Over the last four or five years, it's been an uphill process, but programs and advertisements, like the one showing now, support our recruiters in the field," National Guard Bureau spokesman Emanuel Pacheco said.
Despite the boost, though, recruiters still face challenges. Often standing in the way are competition for qualified young people from industry and universities and pressure from family and friends not to join - especially during wartime.
Joe Davis, a spokesman for Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S., said that it's impossible for the military to compete with advertising budgets of major companies but that the ads help it make its point.
"The movie ads are a very economical way to get the message across to a captured audience, and it's far less expensive than buying ads on TV," Davis said.