Military recruitment videos, as well as any commercials, try to create a positive image of the advertised product and encourage the audience to buy it, which, in a military case, is “to enlist to armed forces.” Those armed forces that ceased conscription and introduced all-volunteer forces must compete in the labour market with various companies and organisations, and this leads to the marketisation of military recruitment. As a result, these armed forces seek to attract recruits by employing a variety of emotions, ideas, and narratives, ranging from idealising soldiers as heroes and using Hollywood style aesthetics to minimalistic narrative suggesting that military service is a job like any other. While the military continues targeting individuals with traditional masculine values, the shift in a society also influences changes in the military recruitment strategy. It seems the decision about what narratives, stylistic choices, and tactics to apply in recruitment strategy depends on political context, a society's values, and perception of the military.
In some cases the marketisation of the military service goes as far as presenting conflict and service in a foreign land as a chance to visit places unknown. For example, one of the consequences of the Vietnam War for the recruitment narrative was a shifting focus from battle to the travel opportunities. Such rhetoric is problematic from an ethical point of view, because it emphasises the entertainment element in a possibly violent background. Nevertheless, it is commonly employed by militaries seeking to recruit for an all-volunteer force, as it is appealing for youngsters seeking adventures.
One British army commercial used a narrative of this kind by juxtaposing the image of a soldier on a stretcher to the image of the group of friends on the beach. Showing military service as a fun adventure raises moral questions and might attract recruits with motivations that contradict the army's primary role as a defender of its citizens and their way of life.
The way recruitment videos portray the concept of security is closely linked to the political and military situation of the country. Approaches to recruitment depend on whether a country fights a war on its land, engages in military actions on foreign land, faces increased threats of armed conflict, or is situated in a relatively peaceful neighbourhood. Furthermore, the relationship between society and military and public perception on security also has a role to play. While the use of force and impressive military hardware might be perceived as a guarantor of security in one country, in a different society peaceful conflict resolution or hi-tech solutions might be a primary option.
If the country faces no substantial military threats—like Denmark, for example—security is shown as a peaceful life guarded by the military. One commercial for the Danish Armed Forces starts with the night-time images of a family asleep at home. The smooth camera movements and the rhythmic sound of breathing creates a relaxing and peaceful atmosphere. This ad defines security as the fundamental need of every human being and one that must be ensured by military means. This video also indicates the desire for action should not drive citizens to join the Danish Armed Forces, as deterrence and peacekeeping operations are their main security mission. Choosing this portrayal of military service, the Danish Armed Forces can attract recruits that have a broader understanding of security and see serving in the military as a way to contribute to maintaining peace achieved by guarding of the country.
As a contrast to the Danish military commercial, a British recruitment ad from 2014 suggests security can only be achieved by powerful vehicles, classy weapons, tough guys, and a lot of action. This video employed glamorised images accompanied by energetic club music. The slow-motion shots of the water splashing from under the tank, explosions, and falling cartridge cases resembles traditional Hollywood film aesthetics related to the glorification of war. The sun glare straight to the lens, visually appealing shots of the scenery, images of soldiers playing football, and warm yellowish colours create a relaxing atmosphere and remind one of a holiday rather than military service. It implies serving in the army is an adventure and exciting activity that could fulfill your life, and you are not accomplished unless you are a fully trained chef with a machine-gun or a bricklayer seeking cover from an explosion. It also suggests being in the army makes you exceptional. While the main narrative of this commercial is concentrated around soldiering and military hardware, there is no particular reference to the objective of maintaining state security or its political context. The message is clear. Joining the army is always a classy option, regardless of your motivation.
There is a significant difference between the Hollywood-style action portrayed in the British army video and the melancholic reality of Ukrainian soldiers. The documentary-style video by Ukrainian Armed Forces depicts soldiers performing ordinary duties on the frontline and stating their professions, hobbies, and social relations as civilians. The video proposes the ongoing war is not a choice or exciting opportunity, but rather an unpleasant reality and a necessary result of the political situation. Instead of an uplifting soundtrack, we hear reflective and peaceful piano score that contrasts with some of the shots showing active combat and its results. The text at the end of the video says, “None of us was born for war, but we are all here to protect our freedom.” The narrative of this commercial emphasises that the soldier is not a super-human, but a person who has a civilian life like everyone else. The war situation influences this narrative, which uses patriotic feelings and a sense of duty to attract potential recruits. The video does not target young people exclusively. Instead, it aims at recruiting citizens of all ages and walks of life, who can relate to the responsibility to defend their country; it defines security as the primary need of human beings.
Even when the country is at war, recruitment videos avoid mentioning the possible dangers involved in service. While it might seem a naive comparison, it is worth noting that commercials for alcohol or tobacco products often include warnings about the side effects. Despite rising levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and various traumas and casualties that can happen during service, the militaries rarely openly talk about it. Moreover, psychological research reveals military service has a broader impact on psychological traits of the person, causing, for instance, lower levels of agreeableness. While many enlistees collect information and make a conscious decision to join the military, a warning of possible consequences might not help to attract recruits; it could, however, assist in raising society’s awareness in a time of war and maybe even spark society's appreciation for the women and men who choose military service despite the dangers.
Countries not engaged in armed conflicts and not desperate for new enlistees could experiment with new marketing tools and target a more specific audience. Armies with a need for recruits, however, often try to charm as many people as possible by promising self-fulfilment and adventurous life. Misrepresentation of actual military duties creates an issue of unfulfilled expectations among enlistees. Soldiers join the military with the hope they will be useful and conduct the missions they have trained for. However, the majority of soldiers are never involved in combat and therefore cannot fully realise their skills. This can lead to the frustration defined as the paradox of soldier identity, in which the soldier wants to use his or her skills but at the same time wants to avoid war. Ultimately, the warrior identity cannot be fulfilled unless the soldier is at war.
The series of Dutch military recruitment commercials depart from a traditional portrayal of military service. These ads open a new dimension by showing everyday scenes instead of combat action. The attributes of patience, tolerance to pain, ability to understand different people, and empathy are portrayed as some of the key qualities of a soldier. These qualities are represented under familiar daily life situations such as depilating legs, having a cold shower, or helping a buddy in a gym. The visual language, ordinary lighting, and diegetic sound indicate we are watching an every-day scene. The videos juxtapose the experience of a soldier to ordinary situations while distancing them from the patriotic and political aspects of military careers. It emphasises personal development and does not portray an unrealistic image of military service. This simple message helps close the gap between the military and civilians while creating a sensible representation of service in the armed forces.
All kinds of commercials target human weaknesses, and military ads are no exception. Military commercials, however, are a small part of the bigger marketing and public relations strategy that military recruiting tools implement to attract enlistees and create a positive image of service in society. The examples discussed in this article indicate different approaches of how commercials portray the armed forces.
While some videos avoid using patriotic emotions as the key motivation for serving in the military, countries at war might use nationalist feelings to target enlistees. In some ads, the country is defined as the primary security object, while the Danish video proposes that families are at the core of the nation’s security. It is likely the increasing participation of women in military service—especially in western countries—dictates shifting recruitment narratives from the school of masculinity to the place of self-realisation. To this end, some videos portray soldiers as the idealist change-makers dreaming about a better world. Recruitment videos reflect the changes in a society's perception of security and military service. As a result, in some states, motivation to serve your country could be evoked by understanding your personal traits.
Migle Satkauskaite is a filmmaker and scholar.
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Header Image: U.S. Marine Corps Recruiting Poster from 1942 (James Montgomery Flagg)
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