U.S. Army Lessons for Corporate Recruiters

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Army of One


“An Army of One”—previous U.S. Army recruitment slogan

In 2006, the United States Army replaced its 2001 “An Army of One” recruiting slogan with “Army Strong”, after 2005 recruitment efforts fell short by the widest margin in two decades.  Prior to both of these, “Be All You Can Be” beckoned American youths for 20 years. Presumably the reported $200 million per year, 5-year advertising contract with the McCann Worldgroup that yielded “Army Strong” bought heavyweight promotional expertise and deep insight into the psyches and circumstances of potential recruits.

Are there any lessons for civilian workforce recruiters to be gleaned from the army’s experiences with recruitment sloganeering? For example, what recruitment principles, goals or shifts in tactics can be inferred from the selection and succession of these slogans and how can the lessons learned be applied in the broad civilian recruitment sector?

“An Army of One”, like many engaging and hip promotional concepts was an oxymoron, tantamount to “The Many Are Not Many”, much like the “New Classic” fashion label I found stitched into one of my shirts after purchasing it. As a recruitment, as well as an advertising tactic, the use of such apparent contradictions can be very smart and very effective, irrespective of whether they are being utilized in military or civilian recruiting.

Oxymoron, or “bisociation”—the creative and insightful pairing of opposites—as it is called in the psychology of creativity, allows recruiters to troll the biggest pool of candidates possible, viz., virtually everyone. Since a potential army recruit is either highly individualistic or not, “An Army of One” packs a message for both types and indeed for everyone anywhere on the spectrum between these. Clearly, it was anticipated that the message would turn both the polar-opposite groups—the individualists and the group-minded—on, rather than off.

The risk that potentially non-conforming individualists would be repelled by the implicit requirement to be only one of many was apparently seen by the Army as a risk worth taking. After all, what army needs intractable non-conformists?

However, the oxymoron could attract individualists who associate “an army” with power rather than with brain-scrubbed conformity—an association that is not only consistent with individualism, but also one that targets one of its forms that are highly attractive to the military. Even as a self-contradictory message, the slogan must have positively resonated with recruits who saw themselves as or who simply were well-balanced hybrids of both individualistic and obedient group mentalities.

This bisociation-based recruitment approach can easily be applied in public-sector recruiting, not only in the creation of recruitment slogans, but also in corporate interviewing, screening and enticement.

Consider a recruiter who has prominently displayed on his desk a “Welcome to Our Organized Chaos!” plaque. The typical initial, expected and superficial response to such an office oxymoron is laughter, or at least a smile. That’s because although it creates momentary confusion and/or a sense of uneasiness created by the prospect of the at-work coexistence of these opposites, the unease is dissipated and managed by responding to and treating the plaque as “just a joke”.

However, the recruiter can use that moment and that response to gauge and guide the interview and screening process. The wooden plaque can serve as a wedge into the value system of the job candidate by triggering a segue from the comic message of “organized chaos” to a serious exploration of the candidate’s tolerance for disorganization, distaste for structure and/or degree of balance of both.

Bisociated slogans can also be very effective civilian recruitment hooks and filters. “The buck stops if you fail”—one of my creative sloganeering efforts—trades on the image of power and responsibility encapsulated in president Harry Truman’s oft-quoted “The buck stops here.” In doing so, it can appeal to potential recruits who may be attracted by the implication that although failure is a possibility, the position is one of authority, respect and responsibility. It can also serve to identify and distinguish applicants who are confident of success as opposed to those who are more diffident—especially if the candidates are asked, “What do you think of our slogan?”

“Army Strong”, the successor to “An Army of One”, eliminated the oxymoron in favor of an unambiguous emphasis on power, which was only one of the themes packed into its predecessor. Why the shift in recruitment messages? “An Army of One” was criticized for being too individualistic. Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute research group, skewered it for what he saw as its misleading exaggeration of the place of individualism in the military: “If you want to be an ‘Army of One’ you probably want to join the Hell’s Angels, not the U.S. Army,” he said.

The emphasis on strength and power captured by the contradiction-free “Army Strong” strongly resonates with the power consciousness that permeates American culture. Pop-culture preoccupations with gym-built muscle power, “Fabulous 4” psychic powers, muscle-car power, power drinks, Wall Street “power lunches”, power-bar sports snacks, etc., all attest the central place power and strength occupy in the conscious and unconscious minds of Americans.

Extrapolating from the U.S. Army’s “Army Strong” utilization of that ubiquitous power fascination and imagery, a savvy recruiter will dog-ear power concepts for integration into corporate recruitment efforts.

Most of us are familiar with Lord Acton’s dictum “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It is manifestly true; but then so is “Power recruits.”

Absolutely. Just ask the U.S. Army.

Research source: MSNBC News, 10/9/2006, “‘Army Strong’ replaces ‘Army of One’”, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15197720/ns/us_news-military/

By Michael Moffa