Uncle Sam Wants YOU! DOD Advertising in the Online Age

defenseBe all you can be. The few, the proud. Aim high. Accelerate your life. Each of these slogans has been a part of advertising campaigns for different branches of the armed services (the Army, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Navy, respectively). From a sign on the side of a bus to suggested sites on your Facebook feed, we are all exposed to advertising every day.

With the Department of Defense slated to spend $575 million in the next year to influence your perception of the military and bring in new recruits, today’s WatchBlog takes a look at how that money is being spent.

Examples of military service social media advertising, mobile assets for advertising, and print advertising.(Excerpted from GAO-16-396)

Recruitment ads

Just like private sector companies, DOD puts out ads with carefully selected images and words, designed to make you feel a certain way or to change or solidify your perceptions about the military. In fact, ads for each branch of the military are meant to reinforce the unique “brand” of the Army, Air Force, Navy, or Marine Corps. DOD’s ads help move potential recruits through different phases, from becoming aware of military service to possibly joining the service.

Figure 1: Military Service Components’ Advertising Phases and Tactics in Support of Recruitment Goals(Excerpted from GAO-16-396)

Just a few decades ago, advertising was limited to signs and ads on TV, radio, and in print. But with the rise of the Internet and smartphones, advertising and marketing strategies have changed significantly. DOD has expanded from traditional advertising to more forms of digital advertising, especially as its target audience is young people, a technologically savvy group.

Figure 2: Examples of Military Service Components’ Digital Advertising Activities(Excerpted from GAO-16-396)

The Super Bowl and beyond

Aside from digital advertising, another major DOD advertising strategy is partnering with sports leagues or teams to include military signs and ads, and to have recruiter booths at events. DOD is looking for physically fit young people, and defense officials have said that sports events are the place to find them.

However, in 2015, a newspaper reported that an Army National Guard unit had paid a professional football team to hold ceremonies at sports events that honored servicemembers—a practice the media called “paid patriotism” because those events appeared to voluntarily honor military service, but were really paid for by the military. These reports brought about congressional interest in DOD’s use of sports advertising.

Is it working?

We reviewed DOD’s advertising practices to see how the services work together to advertise, if their efforts were in line with the best practices of advertising companies, and if DOD has the proper oversight over how the military services advertise.

We found that DOD was following most of the best practices for advertising, but that it could find better ways to measure the outcomes of advertising—which we recommended that it do. We also found that while DOD has tried to improve oversight of sporting event advertising, it needs more oversight over all of its advertising, like its online ads.

For commercial best practices, ad programs in each military department, and services’ enlistment goals, check out our full report.


  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Andrew Von Ah at vonaha@gao.gov
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