The Army is Preying on our Generation’s Insecurities

Cora Wilson outlines what she thinks is the ethical problem with the British Army's new recruitment campaign.

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TW: Eating Disorders

‘Army confidence lasts a lifetime’. This seems to be a perfectly innocuous slogan. You could even call it inspiring. But look further and the British Army’s latest recruitment campaign has a sinister undercurrent.

The Army’s new posters and adverts have been designed to target a very specific market: young people lacking in confidence. From gym addicts to the overweight, from binge-drinkers to beauty obsessives, the army is calling out to a generation crippled with insecurities. They promise liberation from ephemeral and ultimately detrimental sources of validation. The army offers the panacea for your contemporary struggles. The army will give you confidence for life.

Or so they would have you believe. In fact, the Army has not even tried to disguise that this campaign is a calculated psychological attack. According to an official statement, 2020’s recruitment drive was inspired by YouGov research claiming that young people believe they are held back by a lack of self-confidence. Essentially, the Army has used this insight to select the most vulnerable targets, manipulating their fears to encourage a drastic, dangerous and destabilising life decision.

Young people suffering from addictions and neuroses do not need a commanding officer and a gun: they need counseling and mental health support. Indeed, it’s fair to say that these are the very last people the Army should be trying to influence.

But they are desperate. In 2019, the size of Britain’s armed forces fell for a ninth consecutive year. And, when it comes to recruitment, picking on insecurities works. Last year’s controversial ‘snowflake’ campaign, which called out “phone zombies”, “selfie addicts” and “me me me millennials”, coincided with the Army’s highest sign-up figure since 2009. The 2017 and 2018 campaigns promoting inclusivity, friendship and travel simply didn’t attract recruits. No wonder the guilt-tripping World War I poster captioned, ‘Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War”, contributed to a surge in recruitment figures back in 1915.

Of course, the purpose of advertising is to make you sign up for stuff. But we aren’t talking about a gym subscription, this is a potential death warrant. Lucy Aldridge whose 18-year old son, William, was killed in a bomb blast in 2009 said young people were “being sold a lie”. “If you are already lacking in confidence,” she said, “this is something that could ultimately break them.”

Other parents to dead soldiers have shared similar concerns about the new campaign. But it’s not just the obvious risks of injury and death: the wider culture of the armed forces poses a threat to the vulnerable. Considering the several allegations that emerge of abuse and discrimination within the British Army each year, ‘lasting confidence’ may be the very opposite of the experiences of many recruits. Just a month ago, the Army’s official ombudsman warned that incidents of racism in the armed forces are happening with “increasing and depressing frequency”. Allegations of sexism and sexual misconduct also appear time and time again. Before making sweeping promises to young people, the army needs to examine its own institutional problems, and, even then, those lacking confidence should not be their first port of call.

Now there’s no danger that I’ll be signing up for the Army any time soon. And, frankly, I doubt they’d want me even if I did. However, I fear that others are at risk of being misled by targeted propaganda. As someone who has gone through cycles of problematic eating throughout my teens (bingeing, purging, restricting, compulsive exercising: you name it), I understand how it feels to desperately seek an escape from feeling bad about yourself. These are the people that these adverts want to get through to: those who feel they’re running out of ways to cope.  

The Army spent three million pounds on this year’s campaign. Next time, I hope this sum will be more responsibly be directed towards retaining and incentivising the personnel who are dropping out in droves every year. Or, better still, in improving mental health services for existing soldiers.