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Navy’s New Ad Campaign Wants To Overcome Misconceptions About Serving

A still from the U.S. Navy's

Credit: U.S. Navy

Above: A still from the U.S. Navy's "Forged by the Sea" recruitment campaign is shown in this undated photo.

The Navy’s new multimillion ad campaign is designed to counter the negative images young people have about service.

This year marks the 45th anniversary of the modern, all-volunteer military, which debuted in the waning years of the Vietnam War. At the moment, the Navy needs to grow to accommodate the new ships in the pipeline. The basic problem is the same as it was in 1973. The Navy has to convince the target audience of people in their late teens to their early twenties that the Navy is their best option.

The new campaign, tag-lined “Forged by the Sea” began rolling out this spring. A group of students at Miramar Community College in San Diego agreed to give their feedback on the initial TV ads. Marcelo Cong graduated high school last year. He plans to get a degree in electrical engineering.

“I feel the Navy is a great opportunity for someone who doesn’t know their path,” Cong said. “And the military overall builds a lot of great traits for people who are young and lost. I’ve had a path laid out for me since I was around 10.”

The Pentagon surveys the youth market twice a year. Sixteen and 17-year-olds are most likely to say they are leaning toward joining the military in the next couple of years. They typically don’t join as they become eligible.

Consider The Military

“Every counselor in that high school is encouraging every kid to go to college, and most of them are college bound. They believe they have to go to college. They try it. They don’t like it or they can’t pay for it or whatever. And that’s a great, that’s a prime recruiting ground,” said William Strickland, president and CEO Human Resources Research Organization, which works with the military on human resource issues.

Except surveys also show the more interested kids are in college the less likely they are to consider the military.

The first ad in the series starts by showing a submarine, then the camera rises to see a special forces boat, then a ship, a jet takes off, ending in space with an orbiting satellite.

“The challenge we found is everyone knew we had a Navy but there isn’t a very in-depth understanding of what the Navy was really about,” said Capt. Dave Bouve, marketing and ad officer for the Navy. “Highest unsurprisingly on coasts but wide swaths of the country where there is not a lot of knowledge of what the Navy has to offer.”

The new campaign is designed to appeal to Centennials. Born into a digital world, Navy research suggests as a group, they like being shaped by real-life experiences, hence “Forged by the Sea,” according to the Navy and its ad agency.

Kevin Quezada is just out of high school. He is taking classes in child development, but he’s thinking about being an actor. The message came through for him.

“It’s sort of implying that if you go to the Navy, or join the Navy, that you’ll become a better self, you’ll be able to discover yourself more,” Quezada said.

In high school, he considered joining the Marines. He spoke several times to a Marine recruiter and took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), which determines placement in the military. That was before he discovered drama class in high school.

“That was something that let me find myself more. It helped me express more emotions, in a way,” he said.

The Navy has always used the lure of world travel to counter the image that the military is a place for young people who have nowhere else to go. Probably the Navy’s most famous campaign, with the tag-line “it’s not just a job, it’s an adventure” dates back almost to the dawn of the all-volunteer service.

San Diego is a big Navy town. Two out of five students in the focus group at Miramar have parents who served in the military. That is a higher percentage than the general population. In 1995, 40 percent of this age group had parents who served. By 2016, that dropped to 15 percent.

Ladonte Hinds' mother and father were both in the Navy.

“Originally, I thought it was a bunch of boats,” he said. “And sometimes they would fly planes, but the more I talked to my mom about it … there are people in the Navy who do all types of jobs, so you’re not just stuck on a boat. You have a lot of options.”

The new ads also target the people who influence future sailors. Pentagon data shows grandparents are the most likely to encourage young people to join the service. Mothers are the least likely. Angela Lammi is a returning college student with two kids in middle school. What would she think if one of them said they want to join the Navy?

Physical, Emotional Problems

“It wouldn’t be my first choice for them because of the danger,” she said. “And as a mom, obviously, you want to protect.”

Pentagon data shows a majority of kids in the target age group think the military will leave them with physical and emotional problems.

“I do think it teaches you respect and honor for your country,” Lammi said. “But I also just get concerned with some of the emotional issues, if they are exposed to a bombing or death. I believe that changes a person.”

The country’s focus on wounded warriors has added to the reluctance, said Capt. Bouve.

“Taking care of our people before, during and after service is absolutely the right thing to do, I think the emphasis, I think the data shows the assumption that it’s much more common,” he said. “It’s not nearly as common as people seem to think.”

Photo by David Brooks

Photo credit: Miramar College

LaDonte Hinds, from left, Marcelo Cong and Chelsea Cresencia take part in a focus group at Miramar College in San Diego, March 21, 2018.

TV commercials are only part of the Navy’s new campaign.

Chelsea Cresencia is in her third year of community college. She hopes to eventually transfer to UCLA. She couldn’t remember the last time she saw a Navy commercial on TV, mainly because she doesn’t watch much television.

“I still go on the internet. As far as cable, I really don’t watch a ton of commercials or live TV that much,” she said.

Talking To Sailors

Last year, the Navy spent 70 percent of its ad budget on TV commercials. By next year, 70 percent will be spent online, according to the Navy.

Young & Rubicam, the agency that developed the new ad, spent nearly two years talking to sailors before coming up with Forged by the Sea.

“The idea was born out of talking to the sailors and their experience in the Navy,” said Sean Howard, who leads the Navy’s new campaign for ad agency Y & R.

Beyond the TV ads, the campaign will try to connect with its audience by distributing personal profiles of sailors who explain what their lives are like in the Navy.

“A popular misconception is the military is the last best hope for the kid who has nowhere else to go. And that’s absolutely not the truth,” Howard said.

None of this is cheap, though. Neither the Navy nor the ad agency would say how much it costs. The Memphis Business Journal said Y & R has a five-year contract worth $457 million. With new ships coming online, the Navy plans to add more than 20,000 more sailors in the next five years. They hope they have a hit on their hands with Forged by the Sea.

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