WASHINGTON — One by one, 60 members of the 82nd Airborne Division parachuted to the ground and secured their chutes. Then they fell into formation and went about their mission--singing in perfect unison: "We are all-American and proud to be, known as the soldiers of liberty . . . ."
"The kids just loved it. They went bananas," said the Army recruiter who organized the event for a crowd of 300 at the Los Alamitos Armed Forces Reserve Center.
The paratroopers, who double as the All-American Chorus, spent their next two days touring Los Angeles-area high schools, singing the praise of Army life with first-hand demonstrations of weaponry and harmony.
Dwindling Pool of Recruits
The airborne recruiting effort at Los Alamitos is a dramatic example of an increasingly sophisticated approach taken by the nation's armed services in an effort to fill the ranks of the all-volunteer military from a dwindling pool of 18-year-olds.
"We are, in every sense of the word, really a sales organization," said Maury Peerenboom, chief of advertising for Los Angeles recruiting and the man behind the singing paratroopers. "We use the marketing techniques that any firm would use in locating prospects and working them."
The cost to the taxpayer of such techniques is high: a record of almost $4,000 per Army recruit this year. But the result, the services say, is a corps of recruits that is better educated and more highly motivated than any in the nation's history.
By last year, 94% of recruits had high school diplomas. And, unlike the 1970s, when the armed forces held little allure because of the memory of the Vietnam War and relatively small economic benefits, the quality of new servicemen and -women is on the rise.
Some observers tie the dramatic turnabout to a surge in patriotism. Others say the economic recession and escalating unemployment made the military, with its improved salaries and educational benefits, a popular choice by default.
Nonetheless, underlying the possible explanations is the fact that the services have learned to sell themselves.
Although many in Congress hope to cut defense spending, military recruiting costs--estimated at $1.5 billion and rising--have survived virtually without criticism.
"The House is pretty easy to sell on recruiting costs," a staff member of the House Armed Services Committee acknowledged. "Certainly, everything comes under scrutiny, but, if there is something in the personnel area that has a fighting chance going in, it's the recruiting budget."
Of all the recruiting dollars allocated, military officials say, the amount spent on advertising may be the most important. The Army, through its ad agency, N. W. Ayer of New York, has become the nation's 80th largest advertiser. Its $73.8-million budget ranks between Mazda automobiles and Stroh's beer in size.
"They have a product they're trying to sell--a life in the Army--and we're trying to sell that like we sell any other product, Coca-Cola or whatever," said Joe Cronin, an account supervisor at N. W. Ayer.
The firm has targeted an image problem: When compared to the other armed services, Cronin said, the Army is seen as rusty and fossilized. To propel the men and women in green into the 21st Century, ads stress sophisticated technology, showing laser tanks and Cobra helicopters.
" 'Be all you can be' (the Army's slogan) creates the image of self-improvement, of self-fulfillment--not just to join the Willie and Joe Army from 20 years ago that people think their fathers belonged to," Cronin said.
Cronin said N. W. Ayer surveyed teen-agers and found that "it was surprising how many of them were affected by a good patriotic theme, the idea of serving your country by serving in the Army."
TV commercials appeal blatantly to those sentiments, showing flags, fast planes and fathers and sons--but even that is considered not enough.
Local recruiters begin their search for manpower at high schools. In an effort to earn the respect of students and teachers, recruiters send lecturers to classrooms, sponsor sports clinics and present marching bands and paratroopers.
In all, Peerenboom said, Army recruiters made more than 360 visits to Los Angeles-area high schools in the last year.
To follow up, recruiters buy lists of yearbook and class ring sales to obtain the names of as many students as they can. The military branches often share lists, but they employ competitive tactics.
The Army seeks an edge by pledging free gifts--including digital watches that cost $1.40 each--to anyone who returns a post card saying they want more information, a practice that recently came under fire on Capitol Hill.
Watches are not the only military giveaway, and $1.40 is not an unusually high price. The Army distributes tube socks, sweat bands, sun visors, camouflage pants, caps, T-shirts and more--in all, $1.1 million in premiums a year, all emblazoned with the Army logo.