The British Army has been criticised for targeting online recruitment adverts at young, risk-taking, working class Scots suffering the “January Blues”.

An internal document outlining the Army’s recruitment strategy says online advertising should be increased “during the launch weekend, especially on the Saturday and Sunday 5th and 6th of Jan when the ‘January Blues’ are setting in”.

An MP and MSP for Glasgow, one of the primary areas targeted by the adverts, criticised the Army for targeting young people with poor mental health. This was denied by an Army spokesperson.

The January Blues refers to the idea that people are more likely to suffer from depression at the start of the year. This is said to be because of short days, cold weather, the end of the Christmas and New Year party season and the potential financial and family problems that can ensue.

The January Blues are also associated with the winter blues or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). The NHS says that a lack of daylight can cause higher levels of the sleep hormone, melatonin, triggering lethargy and depression symptoms.

The Ferret has obtained a copy of a ‘Media Buying Brief’ put together for the Army and Capita, a private company commissioned to help with recruitment. The brief was released by the Ministry of Defence under freedom of information law.

It outlined how the Army’s ‘Your Army Needs You’ recruitment campaign should be carried out. The campaign highlighted negative stereotypes about young people and suggested they could be positives in the British Army.

“Snowflakes, your army needs you and your compassion,” said one advert.

The brief said that digital advertisements should be targeted at 16 to 24 year-olds from a ‘C2DE’ socio-economic background.

C2DE is a marketing term for households where the main income earner is a manual worker, casual worker, pensioner or unemployed. As of 2015, this was about 46 per cent of the UK population.

The Army insisted that it did not target only those from C2DE families. These families made up a large proportion of UK society and it needed to recruit in mass so they were a key demographic, said an Army spokesperson.

The brief also listed primary and secondary geographic targets for adverts. Primary targets included Glasgow while secondary targets included Stirling and Dundee.

An analysis by campaign group, Forceswatch, said that the Army’s previous 2017-2018 ‘This is Belonging’ adverts also targeted these three cities.

According to the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, Glasgow City is the most deprived of the 32 local authority areas in Scotland while Dundee is fifth and Stirling is 16th. The Raploch area of Stirling has been in the top five per cent most deprived in Scotland since at least 2004.

The Army said that the advertising campaign was targeted at certain locations following analysis of which areas were likely to generate future applications based on historical performance.

The brief said that the target audience “don’t consider themselves good with money, but they like taking risks and being adventurous”. They had a “thirst for variety and risk”, it added.

The Army also advertised on the radio, podcasts and the music platform, Spotify. Like digital advertising, the brief said these adverts should be targeted at 16-24 year olds in Glasgow, Stirling and Dundee.

But unlike digital advertising, the brief for the wider advertising campaign did not specify a socio-economic class and added Dunfermline to the list of places targeted.

An Army recruiting video praising the stamina of video gamers

Green MSP for the Glasgow region, Patrick Harvie, said: “There is a long history of the armed forces targeting their recruitment at vulnerable people, especially those who have been failed by our education system or who come from areas of multiple deprivation.”

He added: “It’s even more disturbing if they are now bringing in private companies to help them use new technology to target those groups, and even thinking that poor mental health will make people susceptible to their recruitment techniques.

“Sadly the forces also have an equally long history of failing to take responsibility for the impact on their serving personnel’s mental health either, and if this media brief is accurate they will risk compounding that harm in future.”

There is a long history of the armed forces targeting their recruitment at vulnerable people. Patrick Harvie, Green MSP

Joe Glenton, an Afghanistan veteran and ForcesWatch spokesperson, described the military’s recruitment practices as “predatory and disingenuous.” The group has written two reports on military marketing, Selling the Military and Last Ambush.

Last Ambush claimed that young soldiers recruited from disadvantaged backgrounds were substantially more likely than other troops to return from war experiencing mental health problems.

“The use of the so-called January Blues in the full knowledge that this period can be difficult for already at-risk groups raises further ethical questions the conduct of the military and its marketing agencies,” Glenton said.

Labour MP for Glasgow North East, Paul Sweeney, said he enjoyed his own 12 years as an Army reservist. The Army can be an excellent career for the right recruits, equipping them with trade skills which serve them well in civilian life, he argued.

“For many young men and women the Army remains one of the only careers open to those from more deprived backgrounds or who have been failed by a school system which continues to favour the social mobility of a chosen few over social justice for the many.”

Sweeney stressed he had no issue with targeted marketing for Army careers. But he added: “Linking this particular campaign to the January Blues – given the ongoing issues around mental health support for servicemen and women – is at best crass.”

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In February 2019 the Westminster parliament’s defence committee released a report which alleged that members of the armed forces with mental health problems had been failed by the system.

Spending just £10 million a year on an armed forces mental health service was “scandalous” and long-term care for veterans with complex mental health conditions was “insufficient”, the report said.

The Army pointed out that most recruitment campaigns launched in January and ran the whole year. “Our recruitment campaigns do not target people with mental health issues, but like all national campaigns, are designed to reach a broad range of audiences,” said an Army spokesperson.

“It should be no surprise that a recruitment campaign of this size should focus on major population centres across the UK or increase activity in the New Year when individuals are looking for new roles.”

All applicants were screened as part of the recruitment process to ensure they achieved the physical and mental fitness requirements of the Army, the spokesperson added.

The media brief for the Army’s recruitment campaign

Photos thanks to the Ministry of Defence.

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