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Wartime Web: The Military Escalates Its Online Presence

In May 2001, President Bush spoke wholeheartedly about our military and wanted to ensure that we have a capable collection of personnel. So how do you go about recruiting more Americans for the Armed Forces? Boost your ad budget, expand your campaign materials on the web, and target recruitees at the places they surf for career advice and even entertainment.

“America today has the finest [military] the world has ever seen. And with your help, I am committing to ensuring that we have the world’s finest [military] tomorrow and every day after. To do so, we must build forces that draw upon the revolutionary advances in the technology of war that will allow us to keep the peace by redefining war on our terms. I’m committed to building a future force that is defined less by size and more by mobility and swiftness, one that is easier to deploy and sustain, one that relies more heavily on stealth, precision weaponry and information technologies.” —President George W. Bush, May 25, 2001

Since President Bush’s statements above, we have endured 9-11, and are still searching for the Al-Qaeda leader and his powerful regime by deploying soldiers and specialized personnel to nearly every region of our world. This all takes military power, and many question if the U.S.A. still owns that very same title. Furthermore, many question if we have (and will have) the sheer number of personnel to fight this battle for what may be years to come. According to sources such as Newsweek, MSNBC, and Military.com, our Armed Forces have not persuaded enough citizens to enlist, and they’ve seen their lowest recruitment numbers in years. But this wide-ranging slump doesn’t mean everyone’s in a rut, Military.com reports the Army has met its goals for the month of April, continuing a 10-month long streak of success.

Those interested in an Armed Forces career won’t concern themselves with the big picture of recruitment goals and how military brass plans on getting more soldiers into their barracks. So before you make a decision between which division you’d enlist with and how you would go about becoming what President Bush might call a “stealthy” soldier, you’d either see a recruiter who talks you into enlisting, look at a brochure from a school counselor, watch a commercial on television/cinema, or surf around the web. Not surprisingly, narrowing your exposure to the internet would help you decide which branch meets your attributes, without having to listen to a long speech from a recruiter, who merely considers you as another number factoring into the bottom line. And if you surfed around enough you could play some fun video games or even chat back and forth with a soldier, who’s wireless laptop lets him use the internet while sitting outside a Shiite mosque.

Starting with Today’s Military you could get the facts straight courtesy of our Department of Defense. In all, the site’s structure is easy to follow, speaking to parents, students, and educators. Surprisingly, the parental voice speaks to moms/dads about what their children should expect in the military and how they can share the decision-making process with their son/daughter; it does not communicate about how a parent’s decision to enlist would impact their family, and I doubt a government-sponsored website is capable of (or would benefit from) burdening family members with such anxiety. That’s just bad business, and you won’t find it at this or any of the other .com recruiting sites. Instead, the Today’s Military site delineates small chunks of information in easy-to-comprehend terms from finances to life after discharge. Pragmatic in appearance, it avoids anything you’d see in a Jerry Bruckheimer film; big on text and low on image, the site loads very fast—its designers and marketing gurus must have taken this into consideration, especially for those still using dial up in lower-income households, where most of our soon-to-be-soldiers face a computer screen—if they can afford one (to confirm these opinions, see the Washington Post’s investigation into recruitment practices). Teenagers debating college or the military, will prefer My Future for its bright colors, smiling faces, and surfers catching big waves; when you can take your eyes off this candy, read about how you’ll save for college while fighting abroad. Unlike the academic/corporate looking interface of Today’s Military and the sunny side of life at My Future, Military.com acts as a shopping mall for all of the branches of service, and is equipped with sponsorship and advertisements by the likes of AT&T and Honda that support the cost of this PR machine that aims to project a positive account of how the Department of Defense and its Armed Forces are handling matters in Iraq. When not reading about President Bush’s mistakes, you can shop or read dedications to fallen soldiers.

Efficient sites like Today’s Military, the feel good veneer of My Future, and the Amazon.com nature of Military.com are general-purpose sites. They don’t direct you to one branch of the military, but serve as a broad overview of what’s happening and what’s in store. Think of them as current event portals, that have the capability of persuading you to enlist and do your duty. The Armed Forces recruiting sites that do a bulk of that persuading (most of which have a .com domain, and not a .mil domain) are flashier with their visual and textual rhetoric, and visiting the Marine’s site will shoot the most active online experience in your face and into your ears with its Flash 8 interface and audio.

It overflows with evocative portraits of strapping men and women in uniform: they’re attentive, good looking, and prepared for battle. Don’t let your mind wander with questions about whether or not this is hired talent, rather, let yourself become enamored by the layers, transitions, and textures of this Ken Burn’s treatment: cinematic, dramatic, yet visually understated. Moving past the 3D logo in the top navigation (the only military logo escaping flatland online), users can choose from either a stream of photographs or text-only choices at the top such as Parental Guide, Sitemap, or Volume. You transition from one zone to the next with large images dissolving in and out, and nodes of text cutting into the frame spontaneously with clicking sounds like a magazine snapping into a rifle.

Taking the energy level down a notch, the Navy and Air Force sites share a penchant for moody blue, however they go about their communications using less in-your-face graphic treatments than the Marines with a nearly equal balance of image to text. The Air Force combines animation with its menu choices at the site’s establishing screen. Pan around the photo with your mouse and move helicopter, airplane, or soldier scenes left or right. Initially, this interaction catches your attention, but you may yearn for more than a meager pan and scan, maybe in time that zone will let users play a game before they run to a recruitment office at Mach 2. Moving past that disappointment, the Air Force site’s polished grey accent will remind viewers that svelte metallic jets separate this division from the rest. While the Navy’s site bares similar visual qualities and interaction, it doesn’t chunk its content into small enough bites, and as a result it pushes a large amount of content below the fold (even for viewing it on a 1680 x 1050 monitor). The Air Force and Navy sites bare too much similarity, and the Navy would benefit by playing up the aquatic image of its division, but instead chooses to show ship hulls, jets, and soldiers in technical environments. Comically, one Navy photo includes a sandy desert with camels and a large battleship in the background—the depth of field flattens, making it appear like the ship washed ashore, swallowed by the desert. More humanistic with its photography, GoArmy touches on heroism, patriotism, helping others, and athletics. However, they surround you with buttons like they’re barraging an enemy, with main choices at the top and internal navigation at the left, both companions for the call to action choices aiming to get you into a recruitment office. Still, the site doesn’t go overboard with camouflage and heavy hits of olive drab, instead, they deliver a lifestyle, and speak to an adventure-hungry audience. When you find the interactive films buried within the site’s body, you can launch interfaces reminiscent of James Bond’s gadgets like the Tech Explorer. And if any of its stimulation conjures memories of gaming with Nintendo or Playstation, play a couple of quarters of the Army’s football game. Why they would rely on the losing image of West Point’s team for recruitment remains a mystery, and they would have better luck enlisting Shaq to endorse the Army (with or without his image in a video game), since his stepfather Philip Harrison was an Army Sergeant.

Lacking the entertainment of the Army site and the gusto of the Marine’s, the Coast Guard appears stodgy and administrative, akin to an academic institution, and this is paramount for .mil websites—not to be confused with the commercial and recruiting sites like GoArmy.com, or any others with a .com domain. Instead, the .mil sites function as media portals for news, recruitment, queries, and an assortment of useful information about how our military operates and what you can do to help out. The .mil domains have the look we’ve come to expect from sites like Netscape.com or USAtoday: tight organization using a rigid grid structure and wealth of links with bursts/bubbles/banners advertising a product or service. Compressing a cacophony of links into one area that serves as a public relations tool, .mil sites deliver military news from military sources, and stand behind our political administration. Each and every division has one of these wag the dog circuses, and .mil sites like the Coast Guard can jump you outside of the main content and into supporting organizations or completely separate recruitment sites for the division. Some links take you to perplexing and different websites all together, like the Search and Rescue site with their gigantic type treatment.

If all this disorganization will make you wary of our government, go to the Coast Guard’s downloads for paper models and coloring books that will put a smile on your face (scroll below the JPEG photos). This will either start your children on a path to the Coast Guard early, let them know that Coast Guards are friendly and trustworthy, or teach them to color inside the lines of Inky the Whale. If the deviants at Wonder Showzen need material to lampoon, there’s a wealth of it there. (The show has made fun of everything from the deceased Pop John Paul II to news media itself using a freakish children’s show as its platform.) You think Showzen would have attacked the Armed Forces by now, but alas, they have the Army as their web sponsor and wouldn’t want to upset their high-paying allies (advertisers). Click on the GoArmy bubble at the bottom of Wonder Showzen’s site for an ironic juxtaposition where the interactive ad has soldiers on top of Showzen’s mushroom cloud. (As of this morning, MTV2’s Wonder Showzen has changed their online sponsor button to X-Men III.)

Speaking of blowing things up, a soldier’s life isn’t for everyone, and taking the big step puts you face to face with both noble and life-threatening duties where you may face explosive situations. Observing just a few of the sites above only scratches the surface of online material. If you want to get as close to the details of service as possible, military blogs (milblogs) voice soldiers’ day-to-day activities, opinions, and in some cases their operations (classified or not). Read any milblog, and not only will your image of the military change, but you’ll also see a real person on the other end of that content instead of hired talent surfing at beaches near their barracks or mountain biking while off duty. The milblog In Iraq for 365 has a caption beneath its title that reads, About my experiences in Iraq… the frustrations, the missions and this country… and the journey home. The Iraq vet’s December 2005 entry recalls this attack:

As the rocket flew directly toward me, time suspended. I knew I was going to die. My life flashed before my eyes. Just as I lost hope, the RPG landed 10 feet in front of me. It was a dud. And we killed the attackers. Their bodies fell to the earth like tiny trees being knocked down by the wind.

That excerpt from 365’s appropriately titled entry Tellin’ It Like It Is reminds us that signing up and going to war has little to do with the glossy interfaces that house recruitment campaigns, and more to do with life or death situations.

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PUBLISHED ON May.26.2006 BY Jason A. Tselentis
Randy’s comment is:

Thanks for the thorough review, Jason. I must saw I wouldn't have the stamina to make it through all of the recruiting sites as you have.

It wasn't too many years ago that I was still in high school, in the mess of teenagers faking and understanding of what their future might be like. It saddened me then and does still, to see impressionable youth misled about the commitment they were consideration. All thoughts about the US Military, its role, and necessity aside...it's distrubing to think that anyone is serving for any other reason than pride and citizenry.

It's for reasons like this that we've ended up with gangs in the armed forces.

On May.26.2006 at 07:08 PM
Tselentis’s comment is:

I understand your point of view on things, as I was an impressionable high schooler, who applied and was accepted to the Air Force Academy after a long-winded application process. After much deliberation, I changed my mind. I sourced these sites over the past few weeks with nostalgia for what could have been, and sympathy for those who already made a commitment.

On May.26.2006 at 10:20 PM
Ravenone’s comment is:

Tselentis- I refuse to believe that you ever were a teenager or child. You sprouted full-grown from the earth. :)

Randy- The gangs in the military thing is something I was previously unaware of. Thanks for sharing:)

All in all- an interesting article. I have friends in the military; most of whom were recruited at about the same time they entered college.

As far as the quality of the advertisements?
-The web stuff doesn't seem that bad, but some of the comericals are ... rather horid, IMHO. There's a few overly-cg ones that just make my itty bitty internal design critic cringe.

On May.27.2006 at 03:41 AM
Tselentis’s comment is:

Overly-CG? Raven, do you mean the Marine Corps one that uses dragons, knights, and fire? I haven't seen any others besides that one.

On May.27.2006 at 07:17 AM
Ravenone’s comment is:

Tselentis- Yup, that one. And there were some other ones along that line. For some odd reason it makes me want to cry, and not from any patriotic feelings.

On May.27.2006 at 11:38 PM
Tselentis’s comment is:

For some odd reason it makes me want to cry, and not from any patriotic feelings.

Those are strong emotions, and I doubt that's what the advertisers intended when they crafted that spot. But if you cry because the ad is too sappy, then I understand.

On May.27.2006 at 11:51 PM
Ravenone’s comment is:

Probably not what they were going for; and I am an odd duck compared to my peerage, who would've been their target audience.

On May.29.2006 at 01:54 AM
Frank’s comment is:

As someone who graduated from the Air Force Academy (there was no Web back then) and served 11 years in the Air Force, I enjoyed your review. It was in fact my brief career in the AF that sparked my interest in design. They didn't offer design at the Academy and the Art program was relegated to football players who needed an easy minor, so I chose East Asian Studies (history, pol sci, econ, geog) with a minor in Chinese. This track took me into Intelligence.

As an intelligence officer, we had to deal with large volumes of information, reports and briefings that were (and still are) poorly designed. After spending time learning some general design principles, I realized my briefings to senior staff were more effective because of good design. From there I tryied to find ways that design could change the way the Air Force communicated classified information. I felt like I was throwing pearls to pigs.

Eventually, I was assigned to Air Force ROTC recruiting in 1998 and later the advertising section. Recruiting in the military was at an all time low since Vietnam, but I was convinced that design with a little help form that new thing called the Web, could change all that. So, I persuaded the powers that be to spend a large chunk of money to hire an ad agency (the now defunct 60 Foot Spider/Bozell Kamstra and late Tribal DDB Dallas) to build an online AF ROTC brand identity online. The firm (Tribal DDB of Dallas) did a bang up job and our scholarship applications doubled the first year of the redesign.

Interestingly, we discovered through a lot of research that you must show people something they don't already know about you to gain their attention. In AF ROTC's case, most people didn't know that when you're in ROTC you're a normal college student and only have to wear the uniform one day per week. Army and Navy were (and still do) only showing students in uniform on campus doing military stuff. This just reinforced the image joining ROTC would lead to an abnormal college life. So, we centered the site design and brand campaign around the mantra "PUSH-your life, your dreams, your limits and your self". You would find a person in uniform on the site in proportion to their actual time in uniform on campus (not very often). The AF ROTC brand colors became orange and blue (boy was that a hard one to explain to the generals). The redesign was true to life and changed student's misperceptions about ROTC. People in the Air Force hated it though.

Unfortunately, GSD&M took over the account right before I left, 9-11 occurred and the website design eventually reverted back to telling people what they already know about the AF ROTC--uniforms, drills, etc.

Looking back I wonder what the designer's role is in communicating truth through their work. Are we mere mouthpieces of a propaganda machine (the military's or some other world view), or can design be more like the blogs you mention and tell it like it is?

On May.29.2006 at 09:02 AM
Tselentis’s comment is:

Frank, thanks for briefing us on all these details, you deliver a lot of material that's under the hood of projects like military websites. Your closing question poses a huge challenge when it comes to military recruitment campaigns: can design be more like the blogs you mention and tell it like it is. We need to do more research and see what impact those blogs have, is it positive enough to boost recruitment or do the blogs deter people?

On May.29.2006 at 07:53 PM
DC1974’s comment is:

Just FYI, Military.com is a private company, started as a web portal (a Yahoo!) for military families. It is now owned by Monster.com/TMP Worldwide -- a recruitment ad agency and recruitment portal.

On May.30.2006 at 09:57 AM
Tselentis’s comment is:

Yes, thanks, DC. This link clarifies things. And further explains why it has such a shopping mall appearance.

On May.30.2006 at 10:51 AM
DC1974’s comment is:

No problem Tselentis. I have friends at TMP Worldwide and a friend that used to be a big shot at Military.com. It's one of the high-flying San Francisco-based internet start-ups that survived. Gosh, I wonder why?

On May.30.2006 at 09:24 PM
Tselentis’s comment is:

It's one of the high-flying San Francisco-based internet start-ups that survived. Gosh, I wonder why?

I don't know... can anybody offer some enlightenment, or attempt to answer Why they survived. Does it have something to do with Halliburton?

On May.31.2006 at 12:37 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

I don't know... can anybody offer some enlightenment, or attempt to answer Why they survived.

There's a giant crapload of money in the supporting military industrial complex gig. ;o)

Not really related to the topic and hand, but for any of you ex-military folks that were ever in some sort of maintenance roll, I recently discovered that the cheesy, slightly misogynistic, quasi-comic book that we all read on long boring weekends doing inventory is now online:



On Jun.01.2006 at 03:58 PM