Army Anime Courts Teens From a Small Pool of Eligible Gen Zers

The U.S. Army has a message for Gen-Zers: you don’t need superhuman traits to join the service.

The Army has rolled out a new marketing campaign—an animated film series dubbed “The Calling”—to show older teens what drove people just like them to sign up for military service. The anime-illustrated campaign will run on YouTube during May and June, and is part of a push to bring in more young recruits from Generation Z, or those born after 1997, according to Pew Research.

The Army—the U.S. military’s largest service—faces a complex set of problems: the eligible recruiting pool into all military services is small; and the newest generation of prospects, Gen Z, has had almost no contact or knowledge of the military, which has largely fought wars abroad since 2001. The Gen Z cohort grew up with technology, the internet, and social media.

“Today, young people see the Army as a distant star, a place that requires nearly superhuman level of discipline and excellence—and they do not see necessarily how that sort of perspective or myth, what that has to do with what their interests, abilities, and goals are,” Maj. Gen. Alex Fink, the Army’s chief of enterprise marketing, said in an interview.

The videos feature Emma, the self-proclaimed spoiled kid; David, the Hawaiian kid who at first didn’t let himself dream about becoming a pilot; Rickie, who grew up in a religious Haitian family in Florida; Janeen, a singer performing on cruise ships who joined the Reserves with the help of her Vietnam-veteran father; and Jennifer, born to first-generation Dominican immigrants, who worked long hours to make ends meet.

Tough Pool

The goal of “The Calling” is to help young people relate to the Army and make the service more accessible, Fink said.

“We are revered, but we are not relevant,” he said. “People thank me for my service but they don’t necessarily think about Army service as something they might advise their children or other younger people” to pursue.

Of people ages 17 to 24, almost 71%, or 24 million out of 34 million, are ineligible to join the military because of obesity, lack of high school diploma, or a criminal record, according to Pentagon data. That means the remaining age cohort is the prime attraction for all recruiting from not just the military, but also colleges and employers.

The Army has had a spate of challenges over the last several years, including high-profile sexual assault incidents. Like the U.S. military at large, the service is also working to increase diversity in the ranks, reflecting the larger U.S. societal debate over racism and racial disparities that prompted nationwide protests last year.

Lawmakers required that services ensure that advertising and marketing to promote enlistment into the armed forces “is representative of the diverse population of the United States eligible to serve in the armed forces,” according to the fiscal 2021 defense authorization bill (Public Law 116-283).

In addition, the service has been trying to step away from the perception—built over 20 years at war in Afghanistan and Iraq—that it needs a high number of soldiers shooting guns and driving vehicles on the battlefield. While the possibility of combat and war-fighting proficiency will remain a constant feature of soldier life, the Army needs recruits who can be trained in technical work such as communications, cybersecurity, logistics, and medical research.

The Army’s marketing campaign started with the “What’s Your Warrior?” series in November 2019, showing the breadth and depth of what the Army can offer. “The Calling” series follows up by letting the audience into the lives and motivations of soldiers, Fink said. Digital animation is a “technique that appeals to Gen Z” he added.

Like an ‘Olympic Sport’

The Army’s new marketing approach has shown results over the last couple of years. At the end of fiscal 2019, the service was able to track 500 recruitment contracts directly to marketing efforts. By the end of fiscal 2020, that number grew to 13,000 contracts, according to Fink. The Army is on track to link about 20,000 contracts directly to such efforts by the end of fiscal 2021—and has a goal of 35,000 contracts by the end of fiscal 2022.

Fink is the Army’s point man in Chicago, where Omnicom Group Inc.‘s unit DDB is based. The DDB team in 2018 won the Army’s marketing account, worth $4 billion over 10 years.

The Army has about $425 million for all its marketing efforts this fiscal year, including for active-duty, National Guard, and Reserve forces. While recruiting numbers are a moving target, especially when retention is high, Fink said the Army’s goal this year is recruiting 60,000 to 70,000 active-duty soldiers, 40,000 to 45,000 National Guard members, and 13,000 to 17,000 members of the Reserve.

A prospect will be served the content on YouTube as a 15-second trailer; if the person watches at least 10 seconds of that, the next time they will see a two- to three-minute episode, followed a third time by an invitation to engage on the Army’s campaign website.

“Gen Z flips through social media like it is an Olympic sport, and in order to get them to stop their thumbs for a few seconds, you’ve got to surprise them,” Fink said. “The Calling has got a much more different look and feel than anything else than not only the Army has done—but nobody in the military has done something like this.”