Army's NASCAR sponsorship

Army's NASCAR sponsorship

If you weren't aware (unlikely): the Army sponsors a NASCAR team. The purpose? Recruitment. Getting the Army brand out there, and catching the eyes of the young to hopefully influence their career paths by engaging in a sport they enjoy watching. But Democrats don't like it. At all.

"It’s just a waste of money. A complete waste of taxpayer money. The military shouldn’t be in the business of sponsoring race cars, they should be in the business of fighting wars," said Bill Harper, chief of staff for Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat from Minnesota. Harper says the Army spent $7 million dollars on NASCAR last year, and $11.6 million in 2009. Another $5 million was spent sponsoring drag racing.

This is contrasted with the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard, all of which ceased their NASCAR sponsorships five years ago.

The obvious implication of the Democrat attack on NASCAR sponsorship is the political alignment of the majority of its fans: Republican. How, exactly, the whole ball of wax ties into campaigns and seats isn't clear.

One concern that raises itself is that, in order for the Army to do the job Harper says it should--fighting wars--it needs to recruit soldiers. The Army is well aware of this, and regularly talks about itself as a brand. It has social media channels, and sponsors a wide array of other activities beyond motorsport.

Army recruitment goals and NASCAR

In an interview with last year (now accessible only through Google's cache), for instance, Army CMO Bruce Jasurda said, in response to a question on the change in the Army's brand over time, "I think it’s a pretty compelling story to see how this brand has evolved, not just in the last 20 years but particularly in the last 5 years... So if you look at it five years ago it was primarily advertising-centric, and I don’t think we’re a-typical in that regard of other advertisers and marketers in that period. And the consumption of both media and information among our target audiences has changed so much. I think one of the things we’re most proud of is that we’ve been very fluid and very nimble in changing with those consumption habits of our target audiences."

In other words, the Army is actively measuring the effectiveness of its campaigns and outreach on recruiting, pursuing new and innovative routes to reach potential soldiers. And yet it hasn't dropped its rather expensive NASCAR campaign. Perhaps they know what they're doing?

It's also important to note that the Army, combined with the Army National Guard and Army Reserve, recruits about as many soldiers each year as the rest of the Armed Forces and their reserve units combined. Perhaps they require a broader reach and audience?

The economy isn't helping things, either. In 2009, the Army said it exceeded its recruitment goal by about 5 percent. But the target for recruitment had been lowered significantly from 2007-2008 levels, dropping from 80,000 recruits to 65,000. Exceeding the lower goal means the Army actually recruited about 16 percent fewer soldiers.

The Army doesn't talk all that openly about how or why it sets its recruitment targets, but Slate took a look at the matter last year and concluded there are two scenarios that might explain the lower target: Congressional or Department of Defense mandates for a smaller total Army force; or improved retention of existing troops. The Army told Slate it was the latter. But as Slate dug deeper, it found retention goals had been lowered alongside recruitment goals--by about the same amount.

All of this while the Army was ostensibly seeking a larger force, as ordered by the Secretary of Defense. The result? The Army is getting, and keeping, fewer troops than as little as three to four years ago. Perhaps the NASCAR ad spend is an effort to reverse, or at least mitigate, that fact?

We all need to tighten our belts

The whole matter is framed in President Obama's state of the union address, which called for cutbacks and belt-tightening wherever possible. In that light, it makes sense to at least consider taking the Army out of NASCAR. But it might be worth looking at the effects--and attendant costs--saving the $7 million might have elsewhere.

The Democrat attack on NASCAR sponsorship, as political attacks predictably do, lacked any alternative to advertising in NASCAR to meet recruitment necessities. Likewise, it lacked any interest in the impact it might have on the sport to lose a major sponsor. Perhaps it's time to think this one through a little better.

[National Journal, Slate, Forbes]