Federal law requires virtually all men living in the U.S. to register with Selective Service within 30 days of turning 18. Failure to register is a felony and causes a man to be ineligible for student loans, grants for college, most federal jobs, many state jobs, and training under the Workforce Investment Act (formerly JTPA).
Despite these penalties, convincing young men to register with the Selective Service System (SSS) – especially prior to the events of September 11, has been a challenge. On-time registration rates had declined steadily since the reinstatement of Selective Service under President Carter, with contributing factors including changes in teenage attitudes about service, duty, and responsibility; less responsiveness to what adults may think of as “traditional” appeals to civic duty and responsibility; and an increasing awareness of and cynicism toward marketing tactics among teenage audiences. The task is made all the more daunting by the sheer numbers – 5,000 men turn 18 every day in the U.S., and Selective Service has an extremely limited outreach budget. In fact, it cannot even place paid advertising.
That considered, the strategic communications goals of the SSS continue to evolve in order to keep up with a fickle and ever-changing demographic target. Since teenage tastes change frequently and ethnic preferences require constant vigilance to keep messages and vehicles resonant and current, the research component is an ongoing process. The SSS long ago decided to make every reasonable effort to convey the message to every young American man that the responsibility to register is an important civic and patriotic responsibility.
To assess Selective Service’s communications needs, the Widmeyer Communications Selective Service Account & Design Team conducted focus groups across the country with the targeted 17 and 18-year-old population. We also used our experiences working with over 100 youth and education-related organizations who, like Selective Service, must reach an increasingly hard-to-reach teenage demographic.
Among the promotional materials designed and communications strategies undertaken were:
- A High School Awareness Kit with materials designed to assist the high school registrar’s across the country in promoting awareness of and compliance with the legal requirement of 18-year-old men to register with Selective Service.
- English and Spanish) TV and radio public service announcements were created to raise overall awareness, increase registration, and capture the targeted demographic with a consistent SSS identity for the long-term.
- Finally, an outreach campaign was conducted to the education community – including the Department of Education, guidance counselors, principals, teachers, admissions officers and others – to institutionalize Selective Service registration awareness within America’s high schools. Components of the campaign included co-branded collateral materials, banner ads for organizational Web sites, and an outreach kit offering suggested activities to create a Selective Service registration drive.
Pitch and Implementation
The pitch for the SSS revolved around straightforward messaging for 17 – 18 year-olds reminding them that Federal law requires all men to register with Selective Service within 30 days of turning 18. The target group was also reminded that registration is linked to many federal and state benefits, such as eligibility for college student loans, government jobs and job training.
SSS High School Awareness Kits were sent out during the summer months to reach high schools across the country before the start of the new school year. The kits coincided with radio “Start a Young Man’s Future Off Right” and TV ads “Motocross” running simultaneously throughout diverse markets within the US. Meanwhile, the message was reinforced in schools with the additional outreach.
The materials provided inside the High School Awareness Kit included the following:
- Packaging that captured the attention of school personnel and served as mailer and folder.
- Three (3) registration posters for display in appropriate places in school (guidance counselor’s office, cafeteria, gymnasium, computer lab, etc.).
- On-Line Registration “Hotlink” disc for school Web site. It has an icon that links directly to the SSS registration page.
- Ad slick for use in school newspaper/publications.
- Scripts for student and faculty use on the school radio station or as PA system announcement.
- Q&A sheet to address common questions and misconceptions about registering with SSS.
- A mail-back card to request additional information from SSS and to help SSS gauge the usefulness and effectiveness of these materials.
- High School Registrar recruitment sheet to invite interested teachers and/or counselors in schools to play an active role in helping students understand the importance of registering with SSS.
In addition, Widmeyer Communications developed a partnership outreach program with the education community, reaching out to such groups as the U.S. Department of Education.
Summary of Results and Evaluation
Selective Service evaluated the effectiveness of the High School Awareness Kit based on responses from the mail-back reply card; the number of new high school registrars signed on to participate in the program; and an increase in the number of 17 and 18-year-old registrants.
The bilingual public service announcements ran in all major radio and TV networks, including CBS, ABC, NBC and FOX affiliates, as well as in the US Hispanic market. Equivalent dollar value assigned to running the radio PSA ads nationwide between August 2000 through May 2001 was an astounding $6.5 million – not including the figures for Spanish radio. Dollar value assigned to TV PSAs for “Motocross” registered between $1 - 1.5 million.
Banner ads ran probono on a number of education Web sites, and articles about Selective Service reached key influencers through organizational newsletters and speaking opportunities at conventions.
In the end, registration rates among the baseline group of men – rates that had been falling steadily for years – actually increased 4 percent in a one-year period, from 83 percent to 87 percent. This increase is attributed to the overall success of a well-thought out, aggressive and limited-budget campaign, which is why we believe it is worthy of a SABRE award.