CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/THE ARMY - Saatchis pulls a daring manoeuvre for the Army - The Army has dropped its tough image in a series of surprising recruitment ads

The Army's new pounds 7 million campaign through Saatchi & Saatchi was intended to raise eyebrows and has certainly done so. 'Phwaoarrr games,' screamed the headline in The Sun, taking delight in the television commercial in which a 'randy squaddie' uses his military skills and fitness to avoid waking the parents of an army signaller as he sneaks into her bedroom.

The Army's new pounds 7 million campaign through Saatchi & Saatchi was intended to raise eyebrows and has certainly done so. 'Phwaoarrr games,' screamed the headline in The Sun, taking delight in the television commercial in which a 'randy squaddie' uses his military skills and fitness to avoid waking the parents of an army signaller as he sneaks into her bedroom.

For such an apparently conservative client, it is pretty daring stuff.

But the most radical change is not a bedroom scene but the absence, for the first time in six years, of soldiers in combat gear. Just as M&C Saatchi has adopted the Army's previous approach in its pounds 7 million recruitment effort for the police, Saatchis has ditched the tough tasks and dilemmas confronting the professionals in their jobs for ads showing civilian life.

The aim is to show that the 140 trades that can be learned in the Army are useful on civvy street.

For the first time in 15 years, 1999 saw more people joining the Army than leaving it. Saatchis, which has held the account since 1994, has won awards for its work. So why such a big change? 'We have been very successful with some excellent advertising in the past five years,' Colonel Wayne Harber from Army Recruiting explains. 'We have got the numbers we need, now we want to get the quality as well as the quantity.'

Only six per cent of the 6.2 million young people in the target 16-24 age group will definitely consider the Army as a career, while a further 21 per cent would be 'quite interested'.

The new campaign targets these 'maybes' to boost the overall calibre of recruits which, army bosses believe, would bring long-term savings and benefits as it would cut the length of training and retraining.

However, this is being challenged by the Conservatives, who describe the new strategy as 'dangerous'. The Tories are concerned that the absence of the traditional combat images will provoke a flood of applications from people who have little idea of what army life is really like and who will be unsuitable for it. 'It will be a false economy and could turn out to be more expensive,' a Tory spokesman says. 'The ads might get more people in but the drop-out rate during basic training will be higher.'

The Tories argue that the campaign does not address the biggest problem, that of retention. They say soldiers are quitting because of the pressures on them and their families caused by 'overstretch' as the British armed forces take on the new role of peacekeepers in the world's troublespots, such as Sierra Leone and Kosovo.

The opposition admits that Saatchis' previous campaigns have stabilised recruitment figures, but warns that this may only be temporary and claims there is still a 'manning crisis'. The Tories are also sceptical about Saatchis' boast to have doubled the number of recruits.

It is true that the number of recruits rose from 8,700 in 1993 to 15,609 in 1998. But 1993 represented the low point in the Army's fortunes after the cutbacks stemming from the Tory government's Options for Change review, which gave young people the impression that recruitment was no longer needed. The number signing up to the Army stood at 15,305 in 1990, in line with existing levels.

'We have come full circle,' Colonel Harber admits.

Bronwen Andrews, the client PR director at Saatchis and the person responsible for the Army account, rejects the Tory criticism that the ads would attract unsuitable applicants. 'We have spent the past six years promoting the fact that you need to be aware of the combat aspect of army life. That message has been well and truly received and will not suddenly fade away,' she comments.

Andrews says the time had come to evolve from an awareness campaign aimed at people already interested in an army career to targeting a much wider group who knew less about the services. She insists it was not difficult to persuade the Army to adopt such a bold approach.

'We didn't have a problem. The Army has always been very daring in previous campaigns. It understands about taking risks in order to achieve an objective.'

The new approach was heavily influenced by research for the Army by the Henley Centre for Forecasting, which found that today's 'millennial kids' do not want or expect a job for life.

Soldiers have to sign up for only four years. If they quit, as the TV and press push emphasises, their skills will serve them well in another career. The campaign seeks to catch them young by targeting 12- to 15-year-olds through a new members' website, magazine and video, on which pounds 1.5 million of the budget will be spent. The overall theme is: 'If you've got what it takes,take it further.'

How will the campaign be judged? First, by attracting 15,000 recruits a year, which would enable the existing shortfall of 5,000 soldiers to be eradicated by 2005.

But the Army is looking for more, and wants the campaign to ensure a much bigger pool of high-calibre recruits.

It could be a tall order. 'Saatchis are not resting on their laurels,' Colonel Harber says. 'They have produced what we believe is a first-class campaign. But we are not interested in winning awards.'



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