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US Army Reportedly Earmarked Millions For An Ad Campaign Targeting Gamers

The U.S. Army planned to use Call of Duty streamers on Twitch as a means of gaining more Gen-Z recruits, according to military spending documents recently acquired by Vice. The Army has reportedly spent millions on the project–or planned to, anyway–with the hopes of winning over young adults and minorities who, historically, have plenty of interest in playing war games, but considerably less interest in enlisting in real life.

Vice acquired the documents via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, and according to their report, the U.S. Army had millions earmarked for the project’s 2021-2022 goals. Over the course of those years, the Army aimed to use esports tournaments and high-profile streamers as advertisement platforms, with the ultimate goal of reaching an audience that has evidently proven elusive in terms of recruitment.

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The documents openly state the desire for the ad campaign to target Gen-Z in particular, noting the preferred age range (18 to 24) in addition to other subgroups the Army hoped to reach via advertisement. “Focus on the growth of females, Blacks, and Hispanics,” reads one section of the document.

Much of the document focuses on proposed spending for events like Twitch’s HBCU (Historically Black colleges and universities) Showdown, along with many others. One page in particular displays a tiered list of advertising prospects. “Twitch x HBCU Showdown” tops the chart, with a proposed budget of $1 million. Further down the list is Call of Duty League, with a note that such a move was pending a discussion with Activision Blizzard.

The documents indicated that involvement with Activision Blizzard was being halted due to misconduct allegations and other legal troubles facing the publisher. According to Vice, an August 2021 email included in the documents states, “At this time, we intend to ‘pause all activities’ immediately with Activision due to serious allegations of sexual harassment at their workplace, and also recommended tha[t] the Marketing Engagement Brigade not send their eSports team to the tournament.”

The document obtained by Vice even mentioned individual Call of Duty streamers like Stonemountain64.

The U.S. Army is no stranger to aiming ads at gamers online, including via video game publications such as GameSpot. It even has its own official esports team, which has been used as a recruitment tool at various gaming conventions and esports tournaments for several years. The team is made up of actual soldiers who must first finish basic training and can be deployed at any moment, just like any other member of the United States Armed Forces.

But streamers aren’t the only method the military has used in an attempt to reach what it may see as an untapped market of potential recruits. Per Vice, both the streaming service Paramount+ and the WWE were also approached as potential candidates for pro-enlistment advertisements. Additionally, $200,000 was allocated for a proposed sponsorship of Call of Duty Mobile. According to Vice, the documents indicate that there were once plans for the mobile game to reward players who watch U.S. Army ads with in-game currency.

It’s not clear exactly how much of the proposed $6.9 million budget was successfully spent on the projects outlined in the report. While some projects–like the aforementioned mobile game rewards for watching U.S. Army ads–obviously never happened, the success of other projects (like behind-the-scenes sponsorships) is more difficult to gauge.

According to Vice, Activision Blizzard and Paramount+ declined a request for comment, while Twitch only stated that the company’s ad services did not receive payment from the U.S. Army for individual streams or the HBCU Showdown in 2022. The U.S. Army, however, did have something to say.

“Ad recall and favorability are important as they are both industry accepted measures of effectiveness of the advertising and sponsorships we purchase,” read an emailed statement received by Vice. “Army Marketing’s goal for sponsorship is similar to all our advertising purchases which is to reach a specific market in support of Army recruiting.”

Though the U.S. military has frequently used games as a tool to drive recruitment (with varying degrees of success), some argue that the practice is immoral, potentially influencing young people to conflate in-game grenade-flinging with real-life combat. On the other hand, GoArmy.com advertisements have been slipped in between preview trailers at American cinemas for decades now, and concerns are rarely raised about this practice. Still, there is one significant difference there: Those cinema advertisements don’t follow their young, impressionable audiences home the way ads in online games and popular streaming platforms do.

“In Army marketing, we must meet the youth where they are,” the Army’s emailed statement to Vice concluded. “And that is online.”

(Disclosure: The U.S. Army has advertised on GameSpot in the past.)

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