Enlisting Spanish to Recruit the Troops


Denora Borja is a working mother in San Mateo, Calif., with three children. So why is she featured in a U.S. Army recruitment commercial running on Spanish-language television?

“Our research tells us that we’ve got to do things differently to appeal to the Latino market,” said Maj. Gen. Dennis D. Cavin, commander of the Army Recruiting Command. “You have to recognize that the mother is a dominant influence in Latino families in terms of big decisions.”

In addition to addressing maternal concerns, the commercials that are part of the Army’s first major advertising overhaul since 1981 are designed to counter possible negative impressions of the armed forces among Latinos who grew up in societies in which armies inflicted harm.


The Army is spending $150 million during the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 to get its message across to potential recruits. The budget includes $11.3 million for Spanish-language advertising and $3.5 million for ads that target African Americans.

The commercial that chronicles Borja’s reaction to 20-year-old daughter Alice’s decision to enlist in the Army is driven by a new strategy that speaks as much to Latino parents as potential recruits. It’s a timely approach, marketers say, because new U.S. census data suggest that Latinos may have surpassed African Americans as the nation’s largest minority.

The Army isn’t the only volunteer-dependent organization talking to mom and dad. “We want AmeriCorps to look like young America,” said Christine Benero, spokeswoman for the federally funded service organization that is introducing a Spanish-language campaign. “Our message is aimed at 18- to 24-year-olds, but we’re focusing on activities parents can see and relate to in order to get a sense of what their children will be doing.”

Parents in the Latino community show “much more involvement” in their children’s decisions than in the general population, said Maj. Andrew Fortunato, deputy director of advertising and marketing for the Marine Corps. In addition to advertising in select teen-oriented media, the Marines tries to reach parents and other “influencers” with advertisements in Latino Business and other adult-oriented media.

The Army met its overall goal of 80,000 enlistees in 2000, but it fell short in the two previous years. And despite ethnic-recruiting gains registered this fiscal year, the Army’s ethnic mix doesn’t yet reflect the general population. “About 8% of the Army is Hispanic at a time when the population at large is at about 12%, and the group we’re interested in, the 17- to 24-year-old population, is at about 14%,” Cavin said. “So, clearly, we were not appealing to the segment as we should be.”

Cavin describes the segmented marketing approach as a long-term project. “One of my goals is to increase our underrepresented ethnic percentages by 5% this year,” Cavin said. “And to sustain that increase [over time], we’re going to have to sustain that [advertising] effort.”


Cavin maintained that the Latino recruitment campaign isn’t “about quotas. . . . It’s about ensuring that the Army is positioned for the future. If we don’t start recruiting now, we won’t have the battalion commanders, sergeant majors and other role models in positions of leadership for the next 10 to 20 years.”

And just as in the for-profit world, organizations that depend upon volunteers can’t rely solely upon advertising. The sales staff--in this case, recruiters--needs to be on the same page. During recent training seminars, the Army drilled recruiters on the need to “appeal to the family as well as the potential recruit,” Cavin said. “Everyone has to be using the same tactics.”

Reality-TV Techniques

The Spanish-language initiative is part of the Army’s first major advertising overhaul in 20 years. The campaign unveiled in February followed extensive research by the Rand think tank and consulting firm McKinsey & Co. The Army also ended a 13-year relationship with Young & Rubicam and hired Chicago-based Leo Burnett, which produces ads for Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and other corporations.

In a move that prompted some grumbling among traditionalists, the Army retired the “Be All That You Can Be” slogan introduced in 1981, replacing it with “An Army of One.” The Army hopes to polish its brand image with a stylish new logo that incorporates a white, black and gold star. It also has introduced a substantially beefed-up Web site that already accounts for 5.8% of recruits.

The heart of the advertising campaign focuses on real recruits as they endure the rigors of basic training. The “Survivor”-like camera techniques aren’t accidental. “I hate to use the term, but it’s reality-based TV to a certain degree,” Cavin said. “These are real soldiers, and they’re going through real basic training.”

The ads are designed to show an Army composed of young Americans of all backgrounds. They’re also an attempt to address the fact that most teens view the Army as a big, impersonal organization.

It’s a potentially risky strategy because there’s no guarantee that Alice Borja and other recruits won’t wash out. The Army deems the risk acceptable because “research says that potential recruits need to see the reality of basic training and life in the Army,” said Col. Kevin Kelley, director of advertising and public affairs for the U.S. Army Recruiting Command.

The Spanish-language advertising is being created by Leo Burnett and San Antonio-based Cartel Creativo. The Army’s African American advertising is being created by Miami-based Image USA.

Previously, Cavin said, Army advertising “treated everyone pretty much the same. We thought the same marketing strategy would work in all [ethnic communities]. But now we know that’s not true.”

Before turning its creative types loose, Leo Burnett packed its staff off to Army bases. For many, the trips were their first brush with Army life. “I was in the Army for seven years,” said Pat Lafferty, a Leo Burnett account executive. “But a lot of the others were telling me they had no idea how incredible these young people are.”

Message for Parents

The Spanish-language advertising strongly mirrors the overall campaign’s focus on young recruits as they deal with the daily challenge of basic training. A Spanish-language spot featuring Los Angeles resident and Army Reservist Carlos Perez was reworked for use in the general market.

But the Spanish-language ads include a message tailored specifically for Latino parents. Denora Borja’s commercial, for example, hints at the uncertain emotions she experienced as her daughter left for basic training. The spot also includes a subtle message for immigrant parents who might have misperceptions about the military’s role in a democratic society.

“At first, when she talked to the [recruiting] sergeant, I didn’t know what the Army meant,” Borja said during an interview. “But I told her that, whatever her decision, I would be with her.” Borja’s initial uncertainty was caused in part by memories of el ejercito (the army) in her native country, El Salvador. “They’ve had a lot of trouble in my country,” said Borja, who moved to California 20 years ago.

The Army is hoping its message will resonate with Latino parents whose opinions about the military were shaped by experiences in other countries. “It’s a fact that the term ‘army’ means different things depending on how you grew up and what the influence of the army was,” Cavin said. “In some cases, the army wasn’t a positive experience.”

“That’s particularly true of [Latino parents] who grew up under Castro, Somosa and others,” said Victoria Varela-Hudson, founder of Cartel Creativo.

Varela-Hudson maintains that the Army has good reason to believe it can reach Latinos, who, on a per-capita basis, have earned more Army Medals of Honor than any other group. “Latinos traditionally have shown a passion for the Army, for being in the trenches,” Varela-Hudson said. “There’s an incredible level of patriotism. . . . Yet, when you look at the numbers, there should be a more significant penetration of Hispanics in the Army.”

‘Spanglish’ Advertising

Simply speaking en espanol isn’t enough, marketers agree. And, as census data are released in coming months, advertisers hope to develop a better understanding of how to sell goods, services--or the armed forces--to Latinos.

“A third of this population is recent immigrants, a third is bilingual and somewhat acculturated, and the remainder is acculturated,” Varela-Hudson said. “Obviously, you have to be English-fluent to pass the test and get into the Army. But you need to address [cultural] perceptions about what this ejercito is--and among many of these parents, the perception of the army isn’t necessarily something positive.”

The Spanish-language campaign also takes into account that young Latinos increasingly move back and forth between Spanish and English media. The campaign’s Spanish-language slogan, Yo Soy el Army (I Am the Army) eschews ejercito, the Spanish word for army.

“Un Ejercito de Uno [An Army of One] simply doesn’t work en espanol,” Varela-Hudson said. “It had to be Spanglish or bilingual. That’s the way the majority of these kids speak. They say ‘Army.’ ”

Better Communication

Real-world enlistees, including Perez, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician in Los Angeles, believe the new advertising will click with young Latinos. Perez appears in a Spanish-language commercial that encourages Latinos to consider the Army Reserve.

Perez wasn’t picked for his acting skills. Leo Burnett crews instead filmed several candidates as they read prepared scripts. The ad agency settled on Perez, who is fluent in both Spanish and English, because he seemed to be a typical Latino volunteer. Perez agrees that the Army must improve communications with Latinos whose families aren’t familiar with the service’s heritage.

“When people think about the Army, Latinos usually aren’t a big part of the story,” Perez said. “But here, they see Carlos from Los Angeles, who’s one of the many different people who make up the Army.”

Perez, whose father served in the Army during the Vietnam War, believes that the message aimed at parents is equally valuable. “My father served, so he always wanted us to have that experience,” Perez said. “Parents have a big influence when it comes to their sons or daughters serving in the military.”


Joining Forces

All-volunteer organizations are striving to ensure that their ranks mirror the nation’s demographic makeup. Numbers are rounded off.


U.S. Census

The Census Bureau on Monday released data based upon the 2000 census. The categories differ from those used in the past by the U.S. Army, the U.S. Marines and AmeriCorps.


White (non-Latino): 69.1%

Black (includes Latino): 12.3%

Latino (only Latino-white, Latino other): 11.3%

Asian/Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (includes Latino): 3.8%

Multi-race (includes Latino): 2.4%

American Indian: 0.9%

Other (non-Latino): 0.2%


Army Slogans

“An Army of One” marks the fifth slogan that the U.S. Army has adopted since hiring its first professional advertising agency in 1971.


* 1971: Today’s Army Wants to Join You

* 1973: Join the People Who’ve Joined the Army

* 1979: This Is the Army

* 1981: Be All That You Can Be

* 2001: An Army of One

Source: Census Bureau