Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Should the Armed Forces Be Advertising for Reasons Other than Recruiting?

Faced with serious manpower shortfalls, the U.S. armed forces are pulling out the stops in their recruiting. That's fair enough, although there are legitimate complaints that the recruiting strategies are in fact not fair at all. For example, the "Try 1" program was advertised as a means for veterans to try enlisting again for a year to see whether they liked serving again, but then, pursuant to the small print, many of the people who wanted out were kept in by stop-loss orders.

Still, so long as the recruitment is not misleading, the government is certainly entitled to advertise the virtues of military service to potential recruits. But what about more general advertising? An arresting full-page ad in Monday's New York Times touted the virtues of the Air Force in a way that was pretty clearly not designed primarily as a recruitment tool. I have been unable to find an online version of the print ad, but I did learn from this Washington Post story that my read was correct: The Air Force has embarked on an ambitious program of advertising aimed at persuading the public---and thus the civilian leadership in the Pentagon and Congress---of the valuable role the Air Force plays in national defense.

Here is a brief video portion of the campaign:

Okay, so that could plausibly be seen as recruitment but the print campaign cannot. More importantly, as the Washington Post story notes, the Air Force is unabashed in its goal of influencing policy. The story states: "The Air Force plans to spend $26 million this year and $55 million next year to better compete with the other armed services for America's admiration."

I checked around and discovered that this sort of thing is pretty standard among the armed services, which leads to the following question: Even assuming that the government may constitutionally spend money on "government speech" aimed at persuading the public about the appropriate course of national defense policy, is it a sensible use of millions of taxpayer dollars for Congress to appropriate money to various branches of the armed forces for them in turn to make a case to Congress itself and the American people about how much additional money should be spent on the various branches of the military? Doesn't that question answer itself?

Posted by Mike Dorf


Carl said...

Doesn't that question answer itself?

Not really. Since money is fungible, any organization that receives money from Congress and lobbies for more is engaged in exactly the same process. While there may be something objectionable about lobbying in general, I fail to see how it's any worse when the military engages in it.

Hamilton said...

It is disturbing that the various branches of the Armed Forces are competing with each other for popularity, especially at the expense of the tax payers. Should it matter if people think the Marines are better than the Air Force (other than for recruiting I suppose)? As long as people don't think a Michigan militia is the best branch of the military and decide to spend their tax money there, I don't think it matters which branch is more revered. Plus, everyone knows the Marines are the best, since they're the only group that fights giant fire monsters using only ceremonial swords.

David C. said...

I get the objection, and I generally agree. But I wonder if the armed services would respond that their goal is simply to apprise the taxpayers that tax money expended on the Air Force is money well spent, and that this is a widespread, benign practice.

There is nothing wrong in principle with a government agency going to the public to plead its case for funding and political support. I'm guessing the New York Public Library, for one, has a significant marketing budget aimed at increasing both private donations and public funding. (In addition to advertising, I've seen the main branch set up petition drives for patrons to write to local politicians.)

Certainly, there are a substantial number of Americans (New York Times readers among them, no doubt) that object to bloated defense budgets, and the Air Force might be trying to win some hearts and minds at home before troops are pulled from Iraq, and doves start clamoring for defense spending reductions. If it is ok for a public library or a public school system to campaign for taxpayer "admiration," why criticize the Air Force? Would it be unsettling to learn, for example, that the EPA spends hundreds of thousands of dollars---if not millions---in salaries to staff its National Office of Public Affairs and Regional Public Affairs offices? http://www.epa.gov/newsroom/

Is the line between "informing" the public and campaiging for "admiration" really that clear, especially when admiration campaigns often seek to drive people to more informative websites?

In this case, my personal objections have more to do with the amount that is being spent by the Air Force and the lack of substance in its messages than with any general objection to public agency advertising.

Michael C. Dorf said...

A few thoughts in response to carl and david c (since I agree that slaying giant fire monsters with ceremonial swords is awesome):

I think there is a difference in degree that, at some point, becomes a difference in kind, between, on one hand, educating the public as a means of advancing some public policy (e.g., "reading is fundamental," "just say no," "don't have unprotected sex with strangers"), and, on the other hand, "educating" the public about the necessity of funding the particular agency at issue. Of course, just about every public agency will use some portion of its budget to toot its own horn, and that's certainly appropriate. But at some point, the use of taxpayer dollars to fund a campaign about how to spend taxpayer dollars begins to distort the marketplace of ideas. (Spending taxpayer dollars to attract private donations is a little different.) And I would say that about the public library no less than the Air Force, if the numbers were comparable.

rbarber said...

I was alarmed by the New York Times ad. I'm glad someone else has taken notice. Yesterday I found an article online about the ad campaign in the Air Force Times which solicited comments, and I submitted the following:

I honestly wonder if the full page ad I saw in the New York Times today may be unconstitutional.
To my eyes it presents a fear-based political message that amounts to propaganda, and as such is not what the US military should be doing at taxpayer expense. I think the Senate Armed Services Committee should look into it. I am not anti-military. My father worked in long range planning in the Pentagon. But the role of the armed forces in our democratic society and government is clearly circumscribed for very good reasons, and I think this kind of advertising damages the integrity and credibility of the Air Force and the US Armed Services in general.

Sobek said...

Mike, the question doesn't answer itself, even after your clarifying response to Carl, because your post doesn't indicate how many "millions" the Air Force is spending on the ads. You suggested that at some point, the expense is no longer justified, but nothing in your post gives any indication of how close the Air Force has come to that point.

In response to RBarber, constitutionality has nothing to do with whether you view the ads as "what the US military should be doing at taxpayer expense." Yours is a policy objection, not a constitutional one. Same thing with your policy-based assertion that "this kind of advertising damages the integrity and credibility of the Air Force..." Neither is the description of the ads as "fear-based ... propaganda;" nothing in the Constitution forbids speech based on relative fear-based content.

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