Being hired for a desk job more likely than not means having a line drawn between work and everything else – that whole 9-5 thing. Soldiers live a blurred work-life balance – at least that’s how teens perceive it – which makes military recruiting particularly difficult. You have to sell a lifestyle, not just a job. Plus the exorbitant number of casualties in recent concurring wars in Iraq and Afghanistan present additional challenges to making military life look attractive to youth. And with any all-volunteer force (AVF), such as our own, a successful recruiting campaign is an essential component to sustaining troop numbers. 

Sweden’s AVF implements innovative techniques that not only reach their target audience but also translate a more real picture of what life is like as a soldier. Unlike Sweden, to overcome recruiting challenges our armed forces have taken up some unpopular, cinematic outreach strategies.


The Army hired a prominent ad agency, whose previous clients include MasterCard, Coca-Cola, and ExxonMobil, to boost marketing efforts geared towards young Americans. In 2006, the agency rolled out “Army Strong” – the tagline for the eponymous military branch – along with commercials reminiscent of Rambo trailers. It also teamed up with actor Ricky Schroder to produce a “reality” mini-series housed on its YouTube channel.

But these Hollywood style efforts have alienated youth by promulgating an unrealistic version of war and damaged the military’s image, which has ultimately led to some scrutiny. The Constitutional Litigation Clinic of Rutgers School of Law came out with a scathing report in 2008 accusing the military of unethical recruitment practices and glamorizing military service.

In 2009 a Boston-based ad agency was hired to help rebrand recruiting efforts. The firm conducted original market research that showed the pervasive tactic of selling the military was not working so the firm came up with a strategy that shifted gears. The contractor decided to pivot the military’s image with the tagline “It’s a Big Decision. Talk About It.” Instead of selling the military as a career option for young people, the tagline suggests families should talk about the pros and cons of joining the armed forces to determine if it is ultimately a good fit.

Joining the military is a big decision. Instead of hard ads, the agency wanted to create information-driven content online to give parents the tools they need to help their children make informed decisions; some products even admit the military is not right for everybody.

That strategy, too, although a legitimate effort to increase web-based information on military life, received negative feedback.

In Mother Jones, Nick Turse succinctly points out that, “unpleasantries [like] death and combat go largely unmentioned on”—one of the ad agencies websites for the military. And he’s right. The website propagates life in the military through non-combat roles, insinuating not all soldiers fight. Terse argues that there is, in fact, no frontline in today’s war and most soldiers do find themselves in battle. So non-combat troops who are deployed likely get placed in dangerous situations.

Our AVF requires ample recruiting efforts but at a time when standards for soldiers are in decline (only 79% of those enlisted had a high school diploma in 2007) now seems an appropriate moment to re-imagine how we market the military to our best and brightest.

It’s difficult to compare the U.S. military to a country only slightly larger than California, but Sweden may hold the key to successfully communicating with today’s young people.

Jumping out of airplanes and scuba diving in clear blue water isn’t the Nordic country’s style. Those adventures are only a reality for a small subset of soldiers and contrast too heavily with the gruesome realities of war, so Sweden’s military recruitment strategies focus on reality, honesty, change, and hope (motifs the U.S. military is badly in need of).

In this 2007 viral video – created by the Swedish Marines – an ad to join the U.S. Marines is compared with one to join Swedish Armed Forces. The former glorifies weaponry and is more cinematic, creating a sense of wanderlust and adventure in the viewer. The latter shows graphic news clips from war torn countries with video of more ordinary, fortunate individuals – ending with the line “Everybody’s everyday is not like yours. Sign up for Nordic Battle Group.” The Swedish ad appeals to those who want to change the world for the better and connects with the viewer’s sense of empathy.

In another video, a deep male American voice speaks over clips of futuristic weapons and soldiers jumping out of planes, and ends with Swedish soldiers in basic uniform garb running in the snow. Patronizing the American-style military ad emphasizes the Swedish Armed Forces’ message: military life can’t offer you the opportunity to be an action movie star, but it can give you a chance to make a real difference.

Sweden and the U.S. have drastically different militaries. In budget, weaponry, and sheer numbers the U.S. armed forces dwarfs that of Sweden’s. But military recruitment campaigns used by the Nordic country are notable for their ability to translate a more transparent reality, while still looking appealing to potential troops.

One particularly successful campaign in Stockholm asked volunteers to sit in an enclosed room until other volunteers came to replace them – the one rule being that a person could not leave until replaced by another. The Swedish Armed Forces’ projections for volunteers to take part in the social experiment more than doubled. The theme, centered on teamwork, isn’t dissimilar to values held by the U.S. Army – or really any major military force.

Hopefully Sweden’s successful recruitment themes and tactics will prove transferable to our military, and we’ll see less overproduced, slick commercials in the future.

Sethi is a national security professional based in Washington D.C. Follow him on Twitter @KaramSinghSethi.