Under the Gun

Why the Army thinks a 30-year-old college-educated California bull rider will help it recruit soldiers during wartime

Until 1973, the Army used print advertising -- the unyielding finger-point of Uncle Sam, the flexed biceps of Rosie the Riveter -- mostly as patriotic propaganda. But when President Nixon discontinued the draft after Vietnam, things changed: The Army could no longer count on acquiring soldiers through selective service, and recruiting became crucial to populating the military. The Army men called in the admen.

After almost a decade of stumbling through heavy-handed mottoes like "Today's Army Wants to Join You," "Join the People Who've Joined the Army," and "This Is the Army," the service hired the New York agency NW Ayer & Partners, where Earl Carter, a copywriter, coined "Be All You Can Be." The slogan debuted in a 1981 TV ad that presented a dashing Army Ranger dressing to a swell of electric guitars. The catch phrase not only outlasted the Cold War, but it was also named one of the most successful branding phrases of the century by leading trade publication Advertising Age.

But in the late '90s, studies showed that its effectiveness was starting to lag. When the Army fell 6,300 new recruits short of its target (roughly 100,000 a year) during the 1999 fiscal year, it was the first time in the history of the all-volunteer service that it had missed its goal. It was time for new lingo. Enter the "Army of One."

The service tapped Chicago's Leo Burnett Co., the most award-winning agency in advertising, whose portfolio includes Ronald McDonald, the Marlboro Man, and Tony the Tiger. After a yearlong effort, a shiny new slogan debuted in 2001 during a 60-second spot in the middle of a top-rated season of NBC's Friends.

The ad began with a lone soldier running through the desert. "I am an Army of one," said a voice-over as the soldier passed a formation of other troops without giving them a look. "Even though there are 1,045,690 soldiers like me, I am my own force. With technology, with training, with support, who I am has become better than who I was."

During a press conference at the time, an account executive at Leo Burnett explained that the campaign aimed to present an image that fostered individual growth. "Today's youths want to be part of a team, to be part of something larger than themselves," the executive said. "What they don't want to be are faceless robots, lost in a mass."

But the $150 million "Army of One" campaign had instant adversaries, who thought the phrase misrepresented the essential duties of military service, which values teamwork and following orders. Watching the group of new recruits at Reno's "Bullnanza" bark the enlistment oath, to "... obey the orders of the president of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me," it's easy to see why.

Regardless of what the skeptics said, it worked. According to the Army, the fresh ads sparked a 167 percent increase in visits to the branch's recruiting Web site and boosted the number of daily calls to its toll-free recruiting line by 42 percent.

But the freshly minted slogan was only a small part of the Army's new recruiting line of attack. Getting rid of the old look and the old jingle was Step 1; getting rid of the outdated marketing strategy -- which relied almost exclusively on television, radio, and print -- and into the sports arena, the racetrack, and the bullring was next.

Seated in the heart of Mendocino County, Willits mixes the rural character of Shasta Cascade ranching towns with the bohemian spirit of the North Coast. There are plenty of pickup trucks cruising Main Street, but many of their bumpers carry stickers with slogans like "Defend America, Defeat Bush." The town of 5,027 residents has the oldest continuous annual rodeo in the country, which takes place on a patch of dirt two blocks from the high school football field. One block away from that field is the War Veterans Memorial Building, where a poster in the window offers a modern rendering of Uncle Sam above the words "If You Can't Get Money for College From Your Parents, Get It From Your Uncle" and directions to the local military recruiting office.

Nunnemaker's real uncle, his mom's brother, gave him money for college so that he didn't have to enlist. He says, "If I had nine lives, [the service] would be one of them," but since he only has one, he went to school. He studied business and accounting at Humboldt State, and was just a semester short of a degree when he left to spend 300 days on the road during his rookie year on the bull-riding circuit.

Aside from the time at college, Nunnemaker has lived in Willits his whole life. He grew up here, played football and wrestled for the Willits Wolverines, and is well known and liked around town. The only tangle he's ever had with the local authorities is when he got in the way of a biker who was punching his girlfriend outside a bar on Main Street. After his stint in the PBR, he'll raise his family here, maybe run heavy equipment for his father-in-law and breed his own pen of bucking bulls.

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