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Pentagon pays airline to show promo video

Mon., May 8, 2006

CHICAGO – United Airlines has begun showing an in-flight video about military glamour jobs that was produced and funded by the Department of Defense – a fact passengers do not learn from watching it.

Sandwiched between NBC sitcoms and Discovery Channel previews, “Today’s Military,” as the 13-minute program is called, highlights five jobs that few members of the armed forces could point to as their own.

While hundreds of thousands of men and women serve overseas, many in dangerous places, the video only explicitly shows one soldier beyond U.S. borders: a Hawaii-based Army animal-care specialist doing humanitarian work in Thailand.

Others featured, including an Air Force language instructor and a Navy petty officer who teaches others how to survive ejecting from aircraft, are based in California and Washington.

Also setting apart the program from the usual in-flight fare of ESPN clips and cable news is who foots the bill. The airlines usually pay for entertainment programs. But the Department of Defense is paying United about $36,000 to run its video from April 17 to May 17, said Lt. Bradley Terrill, project officer for “Today’s Military.”

Captive audiences aboard airline flights cannot hurt at a time when recruiting continues to be a difficult battle. All military branches met their goals for March, but the Army remains behind its pace for last year, when it missed its recruiting target by the largest margin in 26 years.

Robin Urbanski, a United spokeswoman, said companies in industries such as health care and tourism regularly buy advertising spots on the airline’s flights. “In the two-hour programming, we have anywhere between 7 to 15 minutes reserved” for paid segments, she said.

David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, a passenger advocacy group, said he’s not surprised to hear about United showing the new video.

“As the airlines continue to lose money, they continue to look for ways to build revenue, and then they sell their screens to the U.S. military,” he said.

“We said we wanted $199 round-trip to California,” he said of passengers. “And this is part of the price.”

Much as it was in many grainy propaganda newsreels seen in wars past, the military’s aim is not to overtly recruit soldiers with the new video, but to educate viewers about military life.

The longer version of the program does not say who produced it until the final credits roll, then it says only that it was produced “for the Defense Human Resources Activity,” or DHRA.

Although the video does not say it, DHRA is a Defense Department section that has many tasks, including oversight of the Pentagon’s Joint Advertising Market Research and Studies program, which oversees the “Today’s Military” project.

Such equivocal attribution is not ethically sound, said Tom Bivins, University of Oregon professor of media ethics.

“People need to realize they are being advertised to,” he said.


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