army ad

Part-time Seabrook Island resident John Byrnes was on the team that created the Army's "Be All You Can Be" campaign. Provided

In the 1970s, the Army was doing a terrible job reaching its target market of teenagers and potential recruits.

"The Army needs girls as well as generals," was one advertising misfire meant to attract women.

"Today's Army wants to join you," was another slogan that failed to inspire.

"We care more about how you think, than how you cut your hair," was another misstep meant to appeal to those with Afros or longer hair styles.

It wasn't until the ad campaign that Seabrook Island resident John C. Byrnes helped develop around 1980 did service in the Army become an explorable career again for the 18 to 24 demographic following a years-long downturn.

The "Be All You Can Be" jingle and ad blitz took to the airwaves following the post-Vietnam, post-draft 1970s, airing for the first time during the 1981 New Year’s college football bowl games.

The revamped focus shifted to the individual achieving success in a volunteer Army. Soldiers were depicted performing in missions that included jumping out of airplanes and reaching recognized goals.

By all accounts, the Army was pleased with the resulting rebound in recruitment, using the "Be All You Can Be" message from 1980 to 2001 — a phenomenal two decades — and becoming the Army's longest peacetime recruiting campaign.

Madison Avenue was equally impressed. In 1999, Advertising Age magazine, the watchdog of the industry, called "Be All You Can Be" the 18th most successful ad campaign of the 20th century's top 100.

Byrnes, who died May 18 at age 81, was a part-time Seabrook resident, splitting his time between here and Maine. But, in the 1970s, he was part of the creative team behind the Army campaign, taking it from one of the nation's oldest but now-defunct advertising agencies, N.W. Ayer of Philadelphia and New York, to America's youth.

His wife, Ada Byrnes, who still lives on Seabrook, south of Charleston, said part of the inspiration for the messaging came from her husband's own service in the Army.

"He liked the organization; he liked the discipline," she said.

It wasn't always smooth going, she recalled. She remembers it being particularly hard for ad agencies to take on military clients in the 1970s national mood of rebellion and post-Watergate malaise. But she also remembers her husband being excited by what the agency was doing.

The thrust "was to inspire, to bring out their best qualities," she said of the messaging.

It was also a period of great competition to re-attract American youth to all of the Pentagon's services, with the Marines proclaiming "The Few, The Proud" and the Navy declaring “It’s Not Just a Job, It’s An Adventure.”

Ada Byrnes remembers her husband, who was the art director and a member of a bigger team, bringing home the "dailies" — excerpts of commercial film shot that day — for the family to watch. It featured images of soldiers rappelling in the dark. It was an exciting depiction, she said.

One of the more enduring video images is a group of soldiers parachuting from a plane alongside a motorized military vehicle also dropped by parachute. The troopers work to get the vehicle up and running before taking a break for coffee.

"We do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day," says the voice-over.

"Hey first sergeant, good morning," says a smiling mustachioed African American soldier drinking coffee. The screen is tinged in dim lighting meant to depict the early dawn. 

Jim Murphy, who along with Byrnes was a team leader on the campaign, said the "Be All You Can Be" ad was one of three pitches given to the Pentagon. It worked, he said, because it focused on the "aspirational" aspect of joining the service and getting a valuable skill or technical training.

"That's what $100 million of your tax dollars will do," Murphy joked about its longevity.  

Andy Merz, who worked with Byrnes in the years after the "Be All You Can Be" campaign was launched, said the ad was so successful that it was used to open doors much later in Byrnes' lengthy career as a "Mad Man."

"That was kind of our calling card when we pitched business and wanted to get in the door," Merz said.

Byrnes had various other clients in his career but it was the "Be All You Can Be" campaign that is one of his more enduring, especially after the Army's two subsequent messages, "Army of One" and "Army Strong," failed to resonate nearly as successfully. 

In addition to his wife, Byrnes is survived by two sons, four grandsons and his sister. His memorial service will be held at a later date. Arrangements are by J. Henry Stuhr Inc., West Ashley Chapel. 

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Reach Schuyler Kropf at 843-937-5551. Follow him on Twitter at @skropf47.

Political Editor

Schuyler Kropf is The Post and Courier political editor. He has covered every major political race in South Carolina dating to 1988, including for U.S. Senate, governorship, the Statehouse and Republican and Democratic presidential primaries.

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