Military Recruitment and Science Fiction Movies

The sequel to the 1996 mega-blockbuster “Independence Day” hit theaters this summer but there was something a little strange about many of the trailers. What looks like a clever marketing campaign centered on joining the fictional “Earth Space Defense” was actually a cross-branded recruitment tool for the US Army. It’s part of a multi-million dollar joint advertising venture between 20th Century Fox and the United States Military.

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SOURCES
U.S. Army Using Independence Day as a Propaganda Tool
List on US military interventions since World War II
Infographic of US interventions in Latin America
• How Many Countries is the U.S. Currently Bombing?
U.S. Escalates a Shadow War In Somalia
McCann Worldgroup’s Lisa Nocella on NPR
US Army spends 200 million per year on advertising
Only 15% of military recruits get the promised college degree
Soldiers Forced to Repay Enlistment Bonuses After Going to War
National Coalition for the Homeless – Veterans Facts
Sexual Assault in the Military – Fact Sheet
Suicide rate of U.S. veterans rose one third since 2001
Military refused to assist on original Independence Day
US Navy collaboration on Battleship movie
X-Men cross-promotion with US Army
History of Military collaborations with Hollywood
Hollywood and the Pentagon: A relationship of mutual exploitation

RECOMMENDED READING
An Ordinary Person’s Guide To Empire by Arundhati Roy
War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges
Killing Hope by William Blum
Rogue States: The Rule of Force in World Affairs by Noam Chomsky
Propaganda and the Public Mind by Noam Chomsky
Necessary Illusions by Noam Chomsky

FAIR USE
All multimedia clips included in this video constitute a ‘fair use’ of any copyrighted material as provided for in Section 107 of U.S. Copyright law, which allows for criticism, comment and scholarship. Learn more about fair use with this awesome app by New Media Rights!

CREDITS
Writer/Producer: Jonathan McIntosh
Logo Design: Justin McIntosh
Music: Jonathan Mann

Below is a full transcript of this episode 

[CLIP- Trailer for Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)]
So, once again this is David Levinson reminding you and anybody else that’s listening: Don’t mess with Earth!

The long-awaited sequel to the 1996 mega-blockbuster Independence Day hit theaters this summer. Independence Day: Resurgence is built on the same premise that made the original famous: a potent combination of alien killin’ and patriotic pandering.

According to most reviews the movie itself was unremarkable. What was remarkable however, was the marketing for the film. Some of you might remember something a little strange about the trailers. And I mean in addition to Jeff Goldblum doing his whole Jeff Goldblum thing.

[CLIP- Independence Day: Resurgence TV ad (2016)]
When the world was brought to its knees, the Army was there to fight back promised us this would never happen again. They have been the driving force in uniting nations around the world to form the most powerful weapon against another attack: The Earth Space Defense. Brave men and women of the ESD are making sure that the war of ’96 will never happen again. Join Earth Space Defense. Next time, we will be prepared.

So we see the stars of the film speaking directly to the camera, praising the US Army and then asking fans to join something called Earth Space Defense. Then at the end of the trailer we see a URL: JoinESD.com.

Once fans arrive at that website, they’re asked to enlist in the ESD to help fight off future alien invasions and “defend Earth’s independence at all cost.” By clicking enlist visitors are notified that they are now a soldier with the rank of “private.”

Now in order to determine your role in this fantasy-military organization, fans are instructed to complete a series of gamified “missions.” Mini-games include simulations where players learn how to pilot an unmanned military drone or crack secret alien codes. Completing each mission raises your rank and unlocks exclusive Independence Day movie content.

[CLIP- exclusive Independence Day: Resurgence clip]
We’ve taken fighter jets that the US military would have been accustomed to and we’ve incorporated alien technology.

Now you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is just a clever marketing stunt designed to drum up more interest in the film. But there’s something a little more insidious going on here. In order to compete to unlock those movie extras fans are instructed to sign-in with Facebook. But by doing so, it allows the US Army access to your Facebook page and your personal data along with it. That’s because this whole “Earth Space Defense” campaign is actually a surreptitious recruiting tool for the US Army. It’s part of a multi-million dollar joint advertising venture between 20th Century Fox and the United States military.

If you look carefully you’ll notice a small unassuming US Army logo in the corner of the page right across from the Independence Day logo. If you look even more closely, you’ll notice that when linking over to JoinESD.com, you’re quietly redirected to GoArmy.com where the site is hosted. GoArmy.com, for those who don’t know, is the official website for US Army recruitment.

[CLIP- “Be Someone’s Hero” TV Ad (2016)]
Interviewer: Were you surprised when your daughter enlisted?
Father: Not at all. She’s a born leader. I know I’ve been taking orders from her since she was five years old.
Interviewer: So you don’t worry about her?
Father: Of course I worry about her. I fought in the War of ’96. I know what those things are capable of. But I know what my daughter is capable of. And I know this planet is safer because she’s defending it.

Now that trailer is almost indistinguishable from real US Army television commercials, at least up until the point where the kindly father figure in the US Army cap starts reminiscing about the War of 1996. You remember, that’s the fictional one that didn’t actually happen, where the US Military defeated the extraterrestrial invasion with the help of Will Smith.

[CLIP- Independence Day (1996)]
Welcome to Earth.

Cross-branded promotions are now ubiquitous in Hollywood. You’ve probably seen commercials for Audi or Doritos or Coke that double as trailers for superhero films. These movie tie-ins are meant to trigger an emotional connection in viewers and increase what’s referred to as “positive-brand association” by connecting a product with something that people already like. The idea is that if you already think that say, The Hulk is cool, and you’re already really excited to see The Hulk SMASH stuff in the latest Marvel movie, then seeing The Hulk enjoying a can of Coke will link those pre-existing happy fan-ish feelings in your mind to the product on the screen even if that’s just on an unconscious level.

And the uncomfortable truth is that this kind of marketing actually works really, really well. Which is why corporations spend billions every year doing it.

But here’s the thing, convincing people to eat a bag of “Street Taco” flavored Doritos? Ew. Convincing people to eat a bag of Doritos and convincing people to sign away 8 years of their lives to the US Army are not exactly comparable. While arguably they both might be unhealthy, life in the military presents significantly more risk to your mental, emotional, and physical well-being than having a little junk food now and then.

Now if cross-branded advertising sounds manipulative, that’s because it is. Which is why it’s not exactly surprising that the US military is jumping on the bandwagon. The U.S. Army now spends in excess of $200 million-per-year of taxpayer money on advertising.

The US Army-contracted advertising firm responsible for the Earth Space Defense campaign is upfront about what they are doing
saying:

“It allows us to tell the Army recruitment story in a very new and very relevant way.” – Lisa Nocella. executive at the advertising firm McCann Worldgroup (NPR, May 2016)

The thing is that “recruitment story” they’re selling is pure fantasy.

Now to be clear, many people do initially want to join the military for altruistic reasons. Unfortunately, US Army recruiters are notorious for extremely deceptive tactics.

[CLIP- US Army “The Next Level” TV Ad (2007)]
Video game character: You look like you’re really into this. You guys want a real challenge?
Voice over: As a soldier in the United States Army, you’ll find out what you’re really made of and how far you can go. Explore over 150 careers, help pay for college, and learn if you qualify for an enlistment bonus. Call 1-888-395-ARMY now for a free copy of the America’s Army Game and this new interactive DVD.

Promises of large cash bonuses and money for college are commonly used to entice poor students into enlistment. But the fine print on those contracts makes it so only about 15% of recruits end up getting a college degree out of the deal, and 65% receive no money for college at all.

Recruiters also routinely hide the dangers that go along with life in the military (even outside of combat scenarios). Potential soldiers are not told that the levels of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military are alarmingly high. Recruiters don’t mention that 1 in 4 women and about 1 in 14 men face severe and persistent sexual harassment and discrimination while serving.

They don’t mention the fact that suicide rates among veterans are extremely high compared to civilians. And they certainly don’t tell you that a third of all homeless men in the United States are military veterans. For the record, that’s over 200,000 people.

Let’s be frank, if you enlist in the army there’s a darn good chance you’re going to have a bad time. And the military knows it. This reality presents something of a PR nightmare, which is why the Military has long turned to Hollywood to help clean up their image and sell the idea of enlistment.

Every branch of the US Military has offices in Los Angeles which are tasked with collaborating on Hollywood movies and video game productions. Now for decades they wouldn’t touch anything involving U.F.O.s. In fact the military famously refused to assist on the original Independence Day because the script referenced Area 51. But that’s no longer the case. The military has recently collaborated on science fiction movies like Battleship, Man of Steel, Iron Man, and Transformers.

[CLIP- Behind the Scenes of Battleship (2012)]
Military officer: We got a film crew aboard for the movie Battleship. Don’t hesitate to show them anything they ask for. Please make them feel as welcomed as humanly possible.
Peter Berg (Battleship Director): We are now embedded with the United States Navy. We’re using all the real crew from this ship right now. And these guys are acting out scenes and fighting their ship. And I think they’re having a lot of fun.
Capt. Rick Hoffman (Military Technical Advisor): Right behind us is the five inch gun…

Now in exchange for granting filmmakers assistance and access to both equipment and personnel, the military just demands one little thing in return: final script approval.

[CLIP- Jurassic Park III (2001)]
Dr. Grant: That’s a really bad idea.
Eric: Wow. You have to thank her now. She sent the Navy AND the Marines.
Dr. Grant: God bless you, Ellie.

This arrangement insures that Hollywood depictions of the military are always positive and uncritical even when the story involves dinosaurs or killer robots or aliens from outer space. This cozy relationship is sometimes referred to as “Militainment” because it produces media that glorifies military institutions, combat, and warfare.

So there’s a long history of Military involvement in Hollywood. Still, I’d argue that this Independence Day movie collaboration is especially insidious.

Now beyond the covert collection of personal data via Facebook, which is bad enough, what’s so unsettling about it is that the US Army is leaning heavily on the fantasy of alien invasions as a way to convince young people to become soldiers in real life.

[CLIP- “US Army: A Source of Inspiration” TV Ad (2016)]
When the soldiers in the movie rise up, when they adapt to a new threat facing the world, when they find a way to win no matter what, remember where Hollywood gets that from. The US Army has been defending American independence for more than 241 years. Go to goarmy.com/independence to learn how you can join their ranks. Independence Day: Resurgence in theaters June 24.

Problem is, where Hollywood “gets that from” is from fiction, or at least a heavily sanitized version of the US military.

Now this cross-branded Earth Space Defense campaign does fit very neatly with the US Army’s PR tagline “Defending America’s independence.” There’s just one small problem with that: it’s not exactly true anymore.

The majority of modern US Military operations look a whole lot more like intervention than independence. And those operations are certainly not designed to beat back any invasion of the heartland, either from foreign or extraterrestrial origin.

The long and short of it is, the US Government has been in a near constant state of war for over a century. In fact it’s overthrown or invaded over 50 countries just since the end of WWII. In an incredibly strange coincidence most of those military interventions have somehow ended up benefiting or protecting the economic interests of American big business. And under the umbrella of the so-called “war on terror,” the US Military is currently raining destruction down on countries all across the Middle East and North Africa.

That’s the grim, messy, and often bloody reality of it.

And that unpleasant reality is one of the reasons why the US Army is increasingly turning to science fiction stories as a recruiting tool.

[CLIP- X-Men: First Class “More Than a Uniform” (2011)]
Heroes: Ordinary people who discover they can do extraordinary things. With unique talents and strengths, they stand together as an elite class. It’s more than a uniform. It’s a chance to be part of something bigger than you ever imagined. Try it on at facebook.com/goarmy and see exclusive content for X-Men: First Class. Only in theaters June 3. There’s strong, and then there’s army strong.

Science fiction can provide a simple good versus evil narrative, one that appeals to patriotism and a desire to save the world without any association with those real-life military operations and atrocities.

In addition to leaning on science fictional conflicts, the US Army is also leveraging science fictional technology and science fictional weaponry as an exciting pop-culture lure to hook young people into enlistment.

Fighting imagined enemies avoids the uncomfortable associations with US foreign policy. So killer robots or zombies or alien invasions, these are all dehumanized conflicts without any messy moral questions attached. There are no real human beings with feelings or families or grievances with US imperialism.

Invading space aliens are easy to kill. There’s no guilt or remorse or critical thinking that’s required, unlike the real world, where killing other people, no matter how vile they may be, is never something you should feel particularly good about.

Independence Day: Resurgence didn’t do so well at the Box Office, so we probably won’t be subjected to another movie in this series. Unfortunately we’ll definitely be seeing the US military using this type of advertising tactic again.

That’s because both the US military and the advertising industry understand something that many people still want to deny. And that is that fiction can be a very powerful and very effective way to influence people’s actions and attitudes.

The military has a long tradition of intentionally blurring the lines between fiction and reality, but this latest movie tie-in represents a shift to a much more insidious form of product placement. And we have a word for when the government does this kind of thing, and that word is propaganda.

I hope you found this video useful. If you’d like to see more long-form video essays that focus on the intersections of entertainment and politics, head over to my Patreon page and help fund the Pop Culture Detective Agency.

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