How Not to Talk About Military Deployments in Marketing Campaigns

A lab advertising paternity services raised eyebrows in February 2017 with a provocative billboard near Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia. The billboard featured a photo of a uniformed military member and a mail carrier with the question, “Who’s the Daddy?”

Virginia Beach-based Labs To Go swiftly found itself facing a firestorm of public criticism for the crude ad that made light of military deployments and family separations.

“You need to be respectful,” says Rosemary O’Brien, the co-founder of Military Marketing, a firm that specializes in marketing campaigns aimed at military personnel and their families. “Poses don’t go over well.”

The military, O’Brien says, is a complex world with its own systems, tradition and language. A marketing campaign that misunderstands that culture is doomed to fail.

“I think you’re best served by recognizing that this is someone who has made a commitment to defend freedom up to and including their own life,” O’Brien says.

O’Brien recalls a client who wanted to adapt standard marketing for a military audience. The company’s advertising included images of a cargo plane parachuting large boxes onto a landscape. This was at the height of U.S. campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. To members of the military, those boxes would look like coffins.

“You need to be sensitive to what those people are experiencing, and sensitive to interpreting things they visually see,” says O’Brien, who recommends that companies consult experts in military life when advertising to that audience.

“Military [members] are very literal,” she notes. The military trains its members to speak and obey orders, starting from the moment they arrive at boot camp, O’Brien says. A drill sergeant, for instance, will yell at a new recruit if she sets a bag on the ground lightly when he ordered her to “drop it.” In advertising, double entendres and plays on words usually don’t go over well on a military audience, O’Brien says. “In the military life, often there’s no room for interpretation.”

When addressing a sensitive topic like deployments, all language and messaging should convey support for the family, O’Brien says. On an interpersonal level, support means bringing over dinner or offering to babysit to give a military spouse a break. It doesn’t mean asking whether the deployed soldier is in danger or discussing the pressure that distance puts on relationships.

When it comes to advertising, one Zillow ad offers an example of how to do it right.

The minute-long ad shows a couple using the real estate website’s online tools to research homes and share listings with each other. They video chat and talk by phone about their search, affectionate with each other but also real; at one point, the wife rolls her eyes when her husband mentions his parents. The ad closes with the woman and her daughter entering their new home, with the husband standing inside to surprise them. For the first time, viewers see him in military uniform.

It’s a moving ad, but it’s not over the top. Most importantly, it’s built on a foundation of respect.

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As a consumer group, military veterans are more diverse than the stereotypes let on. Learn more about this demographic here.