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Has the Army shot itself in the foot? Lessons for recruiters in the Army’s controversial campaign

Welcome to 2019, when recruitment has been catapulted to the top of the media agenda.  The latest Army recruitment campaign’s advertisements have been widely denounced as insulting the very candidates that they aim to attract.

Is this a huge error, or a deliberate attempt to court controversy?

For those who have inexplicably missed the media furore, the campaign posters, based on the iconic ‘Your country needs you’ First World War images, feature portraits of service personnel. They are surrounded by statements targeting stereotypes of young people, such as “snowflakes, we need your compassion”, “me, me me millennials, we need your self belief”, and “binge gamers, we need your drive”.

The aim is to appeal to young people by turning stereotypes about them upside down  – a sophisticated but risky approach. Major General Paul Nanson, general officer commanding, Army recruiting and Initial Training Group at the British Army, said: “The Army sees people differently and we are proud to look beyond the stereotypes… We understand the drive they have to succeed and recognise their need for a bigger sense of purpose in a job where they can do something meaningful.”

(Picture credit: British Army)

However some people see the posters as insulting. Shown the posters, one professional carer, aged 23, told us: “That’s pathetic. It’s just rude. No-one’s going to join up in response to that.” Another young woman, aged 19, recognised that the ads were based on the WW1 poster, but simply did not understand that they were ads. She said: “I thought they were meant to be jokes.”

Even serving members of the Army have complained on social media about them, and ridiculed them with spoof ads. Perhaps worst of all, the serviceman featured in the “snowflake” poster has been reported as saying on social media that he intends to leave the Army as a result – though the MOD has denied this.

But the campaign has its defenders. The MD of one recruitment company told me: “I rather admire its boldness. Some of the ex-forces personnel in our office don’t like the posters, though they acknowledge that it’s the first time Army recruitment has been talked about so widely.

“Certainly you could not have paid for the level of publicity this campaign has achieved.”

But is the controversy focusing on the wrong issue?

Only time and recruitment figures will tell if this campaign, reported to have cost the Army £1.5million, is successful – but if it suggests a certain desperation, there’s good reason for that. The Commons Defence Committee was told in October 2018 that the Army was at the time 5,500 short of its target of 82,500 of fully trained troops.

The number of recruits has fallen short of target in every year since the recruitment contract, worth £495 million, was awarded to outsourcing firm Capita in 2012, a problem acknowledged by both the Army and Capita.

Another issue has been candidate dropout – 47% of applicants dropped out of the recruitment process in 2017-18, perhaps because of its length. A National Audit Office report showed that in the first six months of 2018-19, half of regular soldier applications took up to 321 days to complete and 17% per cent took more than 400 days.

The Army says that it is now working with Capita to shorten the recruitment process. A spokesman told Personnel Today in December 2018 it had recruited 9,000 people over the past year.

Perhaps salary is a factor, and the army’s recruiters could review our Salary Stats centre here.

So what lessons are there in this?

  1. Controversial advertising campaigns are risky. Recruiters need to ensure that they understand the full range of reactions they can provoke. Controversy = visibility, but at what cost?
  2. Using existing staff in recruitment campaigns can risk of the employee claiming their image has been used without permission unless employers take care. The Data Protection Act 2018 requires employee consent to the use of their data to be explicit, freely given, specific and informed. See https://ico.org.uk/for-organisations/guide-to-data-protection/guide-to-the-general-data-protection-regulation-gdpr/
  3. Take care when using social stereotypes in recruitment ads – many people find them insulting.
  4. Consider how efficient it is to spend money on recruiting more people when it might be better spent on reducing friction in your recruitment pipeline.

Read our whitepaper on how to get people to look at your job ads to find out what you could be doing.