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Making Men: Navy Recruiting Ads

“Join the Navy and feel a man!” exhorted the famous Royal Navy recruiting slogan from the early 1980s.

Or at least, the famous RN recruiting slogan according to us Air Cadets when we were trying to score banter points over the Navy Cadets at my school. Even though I thought the slogan probably made up, it still made me wonder if I’d chosen the wrong service to spend Tuesday afternoons parading around with.

Besides, historic naval recruitment posters promised so much….

And then there was this famous US Navy recruiting ad from 1979:

Village People– IN THE NAVY, OFFICIAL Music Video (1979) HD

I’m only half joking. The US Navy provided the Village People with a frigate and some decorative seamen for the ‘In the Navy’ video in exchange for the rights to use it for recruiting purposes. Reportedly the admirals changed their mind when they saw the finished product. Nevertheless, the song and promo continued to be a toe-tapping recruiting sergeant for them in the charts.

Come on and join your fellow man
In the navy.

Part of the appeal or the marketing of male military service, in addition to uniforms and camaraderie – and regular scoff and dough – has long been related to the idea of a kind of male finishing school. Or, to use the more traditional terminology: a rite of passage. About selling the prospective recruit a more desirable image of themselves in the future. Their dream version of themselves.

Where can you find pleasure, search the world for treasure
Learn science technology?

Despite currently being smaller than at any point in its history, the Royal Navy has been airing on UK television some extremely well-made and cleverly manipulative – well, they brought a tear to my eye – recruitment ads titled ‘Made in the Royal Navy’. They promise today’s young chaps that the Navy will make men of them. Better men. Fitter men. More popular men. More successful men. Celebrities.

Joining the RN in the 21st Century is still sold as a way to make a young lad feel manly, and become part of a (patriotic) ‘team’. But this is a century of reality TV and social media, so joining the RN has apparently become less about serving, than a kind of full makeover that turns you into a star.

The ads profile an actual serving (photogenic) RN sailor, and his ‘story’ – going back to his gritty, no prospects hometown, X-Factor backstory style, showing how joining the Navy rescued him and helped him realise his true potential – or ‘his dream’ as reality TV would put it. And become the subject of an affecting TV mini-movie. The RN as your very own selfie-stick or Facebook memories timeline. (Contrast with this 1979 RN ad for submariners in which none of the serving seamen are allowed a face and everything is about ‘the team’.)

Though part of the task modern RN recruiting ads have, ironically, is to persuade today’s young men to apply for a job that will severely restrict their access to uploading selfies on social media for months on end.

As ‘Michael’ tells us (with some help from the ad agency copywriters and, I assume, an actor voice over) in the latest ad:

“Helping to turn him [shot of sullen young tearaway in hoodie] into – HIM [proud young rating in uniform on deck, sun glinting off his chin] … This is the new me… introducing the true me.”

Made in the Royal Navy – Michael's Story
“turn him into… HIM”

The ad finishes with the line: “I was born in Blyth, but made in the Royal Navy.”

As with X-Factor, authentic, gritty-but-charming North Eastern accents are popular – and it’s certainly true that a lot of lads from the NE do join the the Forces as a way of escaping some of the highest male unemployment levels in the country – or under-employment in a pub.

If you like adventure, don’t you wait to enter
The recruiting office fast

Though in the case of ‘Ben’s Story’ (below), a similar tale to ‘Michael’ – except that joining the Navy also gave him fashionable face fur (something RN  regulations permit, damn them) – the advertising agency gave a Durham accent to a lad from Carlisle. This caused understandable outrage in Carlisle, which is in the north, but west of the Pennines and endowed with a completely different accent. Apparently the bearded matelot (whose real name is Gareth) gets asked all the time why it isn’t his voice in the ad, he explained to his local paper:

“Basically, we had a short amount of time to film, about three weeks. And I don’t think they like our accent.

“I knew it was going to happen – while I was filming they were away doing the voice-over.

“I know for a fact there were a couple of lads from Carlisle who auditioned for it.

“They changed it from a lad from Chester to a lad from Durham at the last minute.”

You just know the (London based) ad agency decided that the bit between Manchester and Scotland should all be Big Brother Voiceover Land so as not to confuse the punters.

But apart from the wrong accent – and a different name – most of the biographic details seem to have been accurate. And I don’t doubt, by the way, that the RN is a great way for some young chaps to ‘better’ themselves, learn a trade, make some mates, see some sights, get drunk and into some epic scrapes.

(Speaking of which, several RN seamen were arrested for drunken fighting in Jacksonville, Florida recently on a run ashore from the HMS Queen Elizabeth. A local police officer was baffled by the behaviour of our Jolly Jack Tars:

“The sailors seem to beat the mess out of each other and knock their teeth out, but once they pick up their teeth off the ground they hug and then are best friends again.”)

Running away to sea is also a way to escape from the post-code/class lottery of prospects lads are born into. (Though sadly, nowadays they’re unlikely to meet RN legend Lovely Charlie on their Gibraltar run ashore.)

Made in the Royal Navy – Ben's story

The end-line for ‘Ben’s Story’ is: “Sure, I was born in Carlisle. But I was made in the Royal Navy.” The “sure” here sounds a misstep – or giveaway – on the part of the copywriters: it suggests that being from Carlisle isn’t something to be proud of. This formulation seems to have been dropped for the more recent ‘Michael’s Story’, which just ends with him saying: “I was born in Blyth, but made in the Royal Navy”.

In ‘Gareth’s Story’ (below) it seems the matelot has been allowed to voice the ad himself in his fine Welsh accent – the script is also more naturalistic. Though the same, rather endearingly, can’t quite be said for some of Gareth’s movements in front of the camera: being natural, as Oscar Wilde said, is such a very difficult pose to keep up.

But obviously he really can move when he’s not thinking about the camera or being told by the director to walk slowly so as to stay in shot – seeing as he made the RN rugby team. (Though his opposite squaddie number as he enters Twickers stadium for the Army & Navy rugby match [0:48] made this viewer want to join the Army.)

Made in the Royal Navy – Gareth's story

Another, more recent ad in the series stars ‘Modou’, a black lad who is also given the mini-movie treatment about bettering himself – ‘Born in Blackpool. Made in the Royal Navy’. Though he isn’t given much of a biography or even copy-written lines and an inaccurate accent – instead we hear the voice of a posh, old-fashioned, very charismatic chap, talking about self-improvement:

“It all comes down to this basic question: can I improve me?”

It’s actually surprisingly effective – ‘Modou’s Story’ is perhaps the most emotionally powerful of all the RN ads. It’s also the most homoerotic.

Made in the Royal Navy – Modou's Story

Although all the ads sell the Navy as a kind of floating Crossfit, where you will harden your body and get fighting fit as one of its many attractions, ‘Modou’s story’ emphasises this much more. Handsome, muscular Modou appears shirtless for much of the 1.20 min ad – the camera zooming in for an extreme close-up on his sweat-drenched back muscles rippling as he does pull-ups (0:54), even joining him in the shower.

As the posh chap on the soundtrack tells us:

“There is this urgent feeling that I must improve me. Now you may say I need some help in this process…”

At this very moment the very inspiring RN Physical Training Instructor’s encouraging hand touches Modou’s exhausted naked shoulder in the romantically-lit gym (0:37).

Modou’s story is one of mind and body – but mostly body:

‘Apprentice. Qualifications. Personal bests. Modou got them all.’

The posh bloke speaking in spellbinding fashion is the late Alan Watts, an English philosopher and prominent Buddhist in California in the 1950s-60s. Yes, that’s right: a Buddhist is being used to sell the Royal Navy as a career option – and a free personal trainer. (You can hear Watts’ fascinating and frequently hilarious original lecture ‘Improving Yourself’ used for this ad here: though be warned, there’s not a lot of diet or dead lift technique advice.)

Women have been allowed to serve on board RN ships since 1993 (and submarines since 2013) – much to the distaste of some Navy wives. But male RN personnel still vastly outnumber women by a factor of nearly 10 to 1 and the RN is clearly targeting young male recruits much more than women.

There are though recruiting ads in this series specifically aimed at women – and perhaps at advertising the RN’s modern credentials. ‘Tammi’s Story’ (‘Born in Croydon. Made in the Royal Navy’) doesn’t go for a biographical storyline but instead sells her desk job of Writer (the RN title for HR) as almost an amalgamation of the jobs done in the other ads – “While the crew are looking after the ship, I’m looking after them”. A kind of action-packed maternalism.

Made in the Royal Navy – Tammi's Story

Finally, as a reminder of what joining the Navy used to actually entail and perhaps where the ‘Join the Navy and feel a man’ jibe came from, here’s a documentary about the actual as opposed to advertised living conditions on board a 1950s USN destroyer: “70 men and their personal effects and miscellaneous ship’s equipment are accommodated in 800 square feet – 11.5 square foot per man”.

They certainly don’t make men like that any more.

USN USS Saufley DD465 1952 Living Conditions
In the navy
Yes, you can sail the seven seas
In the navy
Yes, you can put your mind at ease
In the navy
Come on people, fall an' make a stand
In the navy, in the navy
Can't you see we need a hand

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