Join at your own risk: army advertising must be regulated

Priya Bryant 4 July 2018

Credit: Triuneself

I wasn’t surprised at all when I read that the Army has come under fire in the past week for its recruitment campaigns targeted at year 11s on their GCSE results day. As a pacifist, army advertising has never sat entirely right with me; the idea of actively convincing someone to join felt somehow dishonest. Having thought about it in more depth, though, I think it might be possible to defend recruitment campaigns to some extent and to acknowledge the benefits that being in the army might bring to someone’s life. That said, there is no excuse whatsoever for ads targeted at under-18s, or in fact any ads which do not adequately point out the risks of signing up. While army advertising isn’t inherently a bad thing, there must be stricter regulations on how they are allowed to recruit.

As it currently stands, the military seems to be allowed to advertise like any other career or product. We’ve all seen the ads on Spotify, Facebook and Youtube – probably from the ‘This is Belonging’ or ‘Made in the Royal Navy’ campaigns. From watching these videos alone, you’d think being in the army or navy was just an adventure: challenging but always rewarding, a job which would both further your career and bring you the closest friends you’ve ever had. Of course, there’s no doubt that this is the case for many people who end up applying to the army, navy or air force. I’m not denying the fact that the army provides a huge variety of opportunities which might not be found in the civilian world. But the crucial fact is that it also brings unique risks.

Although joining the army can be deeply rewarding, there is the unavoidable reality that it is ultimately preparing recruits for combat and this brings the risk of injury or death. Though this is a fairly obvious fact to anyone considering applying, I wonder whether the glossy ads should be allowed to glide over this aspect so easily. The dangers can be more quickly written off when they are not acknowledged in the advertising. Just as potentially dangerous products have to carry certain warnings while convincing you to buy them, military recruitment ads should carry some statement of the risks posed by joining. This isn’t necessarily going to prevent people joining – warnings on alcohol or cigarettes certainly don’t stop people – but means that they can be informed in a more balanced way when making their decision.

Given the dangers faced by anyone who decides to join the army, I find it particularly insidious that the army has targeted its ads at under-18s. Particularly on GCSE results day, when many will be feeling disappointed or lost as to what to do next, presenting the army as a welcoming place feels manipulative. One ad just before results day in August 2015 read “no matter what your results will be, you can still improve yourself in the army”. Another stated “whatever happens on results day, we’ll help you learn, earn and stand on your own two feet”. Both of these statements were set against images of happy soldiers in beautiful surroundings. When the reality of the posts being offered to these recruits – often the lowest-paid and most dangerous roles in the army – can be so hostile, this seems misleading.

Although British soldiers cannot be sent into warzones until they are 18 years old, Britain is the only country in Europe to allow applications from 16 year olds. When bodies such as the UN committee on the rights of the child and Child Soldiers International have criticised this policy, it seems even more questionable for the army to be actively recruiting teenagers with campaigns such as these. The army has defended themselves with the argument their ad campaigns focus on those leaving school or college “like most major employers”. Yet the military isn’t like most employers. Their advertising cannot be treated the same way as advertising to become an accountant or a lawyer.

This results season will almost certainly bring more military advertising targeted at GCSE and A-level students. While it is my personal belief that all army advertising needs to come with a warning label, I can understand that this would involve a much more complex process of regulation and change. What is not acceptable at all is the continued use of marketing strategies which seek to recruit children under the age of 18 to the lowest-paid and often the riskiest positions in the army. This is a specific, active scheme on the part of the army; it easily can and should be stopped. Army recruitment needs some serious regulation. The military should be taking recruits who have a balanced awareness of the risks and benefits, rather than providing a biased vision of belonging to teenagers at their most vulnerable.