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Last week, I went back to my old school, Falls Church High, for its homecoming game.
The location’s the same, and the football team is still among the worst in Fairfax County, just like it was when I left there nearly three decades ago.
But otherwise this late-model FCHS had little to do with the FCHS of my memory.
Most of the differences were nice ones. The kids in the grandstands seemed pleasant and sober—neither word would describe my peers back in the day. Enrollment is down about 40 percent from when I left, but the student body has gone from plain ol’ black-and-white to a rainbow coalition as ethnically diverse as any in the country. (A 1997 front-page story in the New York Times hailed my alma mater for morphing from a place “riven with racial and ethnic strife” into a happy melting pot.) This year’s homecoming queen had a Vietnamese surname, as did a good chunk of the folks on the cheerleading and football rosters printed in the game-day program.
Yet not all the revelations the program contained sent me home with a smile. There among the sort of local advertisements you’d expect to find in a publication with a geographically defined market—a business-card-sized spot for the Around the Corner Barber Shop on Annandale Road (full disclosure: I’ve patronized this cuttery since 1974, even though cuts now cost $10) and a good-luck message from a running back’s family—was a full-page solicitation for the National Guard.
This ad, under the banner “State Champions Year After Year,” has pictures of men and women rescuing forest-fire and flood victims, handing out bottles of water to kids, and pulling what looked like an Eskimo out of an igloo, along with some of the benefits sign-ups could expect: “Up to $20,000 enlistment bonus”; “100 percent tuition assistance”; “Over 200 career fields to choose from.”
“Whether they’re going up against hurricanes, floods, blizzards or wildfires, the National Guard is always the winning team,” reads the ad copy.
Proper syntax wasn’t all the ad lacked. Nowhere on the page was there an illustration of a gun or any hint that signing up for National Guard duty these days doesn’t mean what it did when I was in high school. Though the Guard, a militia made up of part-time soldiers, was created in the 1700s to provide combat troops, that role had been primarily transferred over time to full-time military personnel; by Vietnam, Guard troops were nicknamed “Weekend Warriors.” But during the current invasion of Iraq, the military has regularly assigned Guard troops to combat duty—a 2005 Washington Post report said 41 percent of the units in Iraq were Guard units.
Those duties are at least hinted at in some of the newer National Guard advertising campaigns now being directed at sporting audiences. Take, for example, the print spot that features the No. 16 car driven by Greg Biffle on the Nextel Circuit, which the Guard sponsors: “350,000 SOLDIERS DRIVE THIS CAR. AND THERE’S ROOM FOR MORE,” hails the ad. There are no floods or fires in the NASCAR spot, either.
But the Guard’s current modus operandi isn’t reflected at all in the advertising directed at Falls Church High School students. For all its modern relevance, that ad in the program might as well have had a picture of George W. Bush campaigning in Alabama for a friend of his father’s.
“There’s no mention of Iraq or the Middle East or border security or anything like that, and I thought that was puzzling,” says Mark Hurkamp, an FCHS football father who puts the game program together for the school’s booster club. “That doesn’t really hit at the heart of the matter, does it?”
Hurkamp says a full-page advertisement in the program goes for $250 for a whole season. The money raised in advertising and program sales helps pay for uniforms and everything else the nation’s second-richest county doesn’t provide for student athletes. At inside-the-Beltway schools like Falls Church—where enrollment has steadily declined since the early ’80s while schools in the more affluent outer portions of the county have grown—every dollar counts for the booster club and the students. Carrots such as tuition assistance and signing bonuses mean more to a Falls Church High kid than a Langley High kid.
Hurkamp says this is the first year the National Guard has bought space in the publication. The ads were placed by Home Team Marketing, a Cleveland firm. Falls Church football games aren’t the only place these spots run. Patrick Spears, who handles Virginia accounts for Home Team Marketing, says “about 30” high schools in the state are getting paid to run the spots this season.
Decisions about the content of the ads, and where to run them, were made by the military, says Spears. He says he sees nothing misleading about the slant of the ad he placed in the Falls Church program.
“If there’s a flood in Florida, who’s the first to respond?” Spears says.
National Guard marketing campaigns are put together by Laughlin, Marinaccio & Owens (LM&O), an Arlington ad agency. In its promotional materials, the firm boasts about what some might regard as the subterfuge of the spots it aims at high-school students.
“When the potential of combat duty in Afghanistan and Iraq became a reality for National Guard soldiers, the price of military service increased dramatically, and enlistments in the National Guard and every other branch of the military dropped across the board,” reads the agency’s online solicitation for new clients. “Combat duty overshadowed all the benefits and value of service in the Guard in discussions with potential enlistees, their parents, guidance counselors and community leaders.”
The best way to help the Guard meet its recruiting mission, the agency determined, was to remove the combat element of its sales pitch and focus instead on, apparently, rescuing Eskimos from igloos.
The strategy has worked, says the agency. “The Guard accomplished its monthly goals for six straight months following this repositioning,” says the LM&O bio.
Doug Laughlin, president of the agency, says that there’s no intent to mislead. “I think if you look at the entire program that the Army National Guard is running, you would see a lot of straight-ahead advertising that shows people with weapons, and tanks,” Laughlin says, “and certainly would leave no one wondering about [the combat component of Guard duty].”
The fact that one of the noncombat advertisements showed up in the football program of one of the area’s less-moneyed high schools, Laughlin says, was by chance and not part of a plan.
“We certainly don’t do any [targeting] where we only are in high schools with certain demographics,” he said.
According to the activities office at Langley High, this year’s football program contains no National Guard advertisements.—Dave McKenna