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a billboard in color with a soldier and a gun and green dollar signs over a black and white city
Each recruit costs the public thousands – in advertising spend alone (Image: Archi Banal)

PoliticsMay 17, 2023

The New Zealand military spends $5m a year on recruitment advertising. Is it enough?

a billboard in color with a soldier and a gun and green dollar signs over a black and white city
Each recruit costs the public thousands – in advertising spend alone (Image: Archi Banal)

With attrition rates at record levels, it’s hoped a bump in pay in this week’s budget will encourage defence staff to stick around. But the other side of the equation – attracting new recruits – is a costly business too. Shanti Mathias reports.

In a bid to stop defence force staff leaving, the government last week made a promise to increase their pay. The pay rises, which will be allocated in Thursday’s budget, apply across the army, navy and air force.

In making the pre-budget announcement, defence minister Andrew Little said the pay rise for military employees was the biggest in more than a decade, an investment of $419m over five years. He noted that more than 800 people had left the military in the past year, and the New Zealand Defence Force was not currently at full capacity; the intention is that increased pay will stop people leaving for work in the private sector.

Little talked about the role of the military as essential, saying: “We have a moral responsibility to ensure our soldiers, sailors and aviators are paid fairly for the critical work they do on behalf of all New Zealanders.”

Information released to The Spinoff about the military’s advertising shows another side of the story: how much money the NZDF already spends on advertising for recruits. 

In response to an Official Information Act request, NZDF provided its spending on advertising from 2017-2022. For every recruit who’s joined the force over the last five years, the NZDF has spent an average of $3,887 on recruitment advertising, or about 8.2% of the annual income of someone working full time on minimum wage before tax. That’s $25.6m overall for 6,586 recruits over five years across all forces (the army, navy, air force and civilian staff).

a graph showing spend on recruit towards advertising per recruit, from around 3300 in 2017 to over 4000 in 2021
The cost of advertising per recruit is… a lot (Data: New Zealand Defence Force; graph: Shanti Mathias)

This spend paid for more than a hundred video advertisements, as well as billboard and social media campaigns. From year to year, advertising is between 31-41% of the military’s annual recruitment budget. The rest of the recruiting budget covers staff, logistics (like transport for candidates to get to intake sessions), and other operating costs.  

Two factors are most obvious in struggles to recruit, says wing commander Rebecca Magdalinos, director of recruiting for the NZDF. One is a gap between pay in the military and the private sector, which last week’s announcement goes some way towards addressing. The other is the economic factors creating low rates of unemployment, which is currently at near-record levels. “The closer [the NZDF] is to market rates, the easier it is for us to recruit,” Magdalinos says. “The latest announcement made by the leadership team and the government will be helpful for us.”

Recruitment issues

In announcing the pay increase on May 8, Little said the NZDF did not have the full complement of staff members in the army, air force or navy. Responding to Cyclone Gabrielle earlier this year, the NZDF was not able to react to flooding with its “preferred option” due to staffing shortages. Some ships and aeroplanes that would have been ideal to deploy didn’t have enough staff to crew them; for instance surveillance flights undertaken in a C-130H Hercules aircraft could have been carried out in a P-3K2 Orions if this aircraft had not been removed from service because there weren’t enough people to operate it. The limited staff also made it difficult to deploy units for longer stretches of time. 

a beige wall with people in uiform for on posters for the code words campaign reading Shellscrape, roastgun, Mo'anga afi"
The NZDF ‘Codewords’ recruitment campaign emphasises bonds formed in the military rather than the details of specific roles (Image: Shanti Mathias)

The defence force currently has 15,211 staff, a number that had been slowly increasing over the last decade until a drop last year. Just over half of those roles are in the regular force and the rest work as civilians and members of the non-regular force (the army reserve units). Between 200 and 250 personnel are deployed overseas each year.

Recruitment for the NZDF has been relatively stable over the last five years, with 1,235 people recruited in 2022, down from 1,437 in 2019. But during that time, the amount of people leaving has increased. Over the last two years, the NZDF has lost 28.9% of its full-time trained, experienced staff, who had been in the military for two years or more. “These are some of the worst rates NZDF has seen in its history,” then minister of defence Peeni Henare said last year. Army personnel, who were responsible for monitoring MIQ facilities during the first two years of the pandemic, were leaving in part due to low morale caused by this, according to a 2022 Stuff story.

Does the way the military is advertised contribute to staff dissatisfaction? While recruitment ads note that the NZDF is a career with potential for growth, there’s rarely mention of reimbursement, something that is now being used to retain staff members. Instead, adverts make joining the military seem like something adventurous – handling dogs, flying planes, fixing ships, travelling overseas. “There’s a tendency to amp up the more exciting parts of the job [during recruitment],” says Angelique Nairn, an associate professor of communications at AUT, who has written about advertising used by the New Zealand police.

“Potentially the reality and the advertising don’t marry up, and that can create dissatisfaction and push people out the door,” she continues. Pacing around a hotel carpark, after all, is quite different to performing in a military band for a member of the royal family, playing war games in Korea, or delivering supplies to countries damaged by natural disasters. 

a woman with straight hair, glowy skin, and a floral shirt sitting in front of a bookshelf with a slight smile
AUT’s Angelique Nairn has studied how the New Zealand police use identity as part of recruitment advertising, and says the NZDF uses similar strategies

Recruitment messaging

But attrition and recruitment struggles are nothing new for the NZDF, and attempts to recruit through advertisements have taken different approaches over the years. A “We Want You” campaign, which ran from 2018, associated potential recruits with “motivation”, a “sense of adventure”, “leadership”, “grit”, “courage” and “bravery”, along with other traits. In the advertisements, action in ordinary lives – doing the dishes with flatmates, fixing a car – are transformed into something organised and purposeful – unloading items from the belly of a plane, arming a weapon with ammunition, fixing electronics on a ship. 

Cut to 2022, when reporting showed that trade professions in the military – the army’s electricians, plumbers, technicians and engineers – were particularly likely to leave for work elsewhere. Recruitment advertising reflects this. In addition to advertising for positions within the military, ads have promoted army scholarships, positions in the reserves, and civilian roles like chefs. 

The audience that the advertisements target is significant, too. The latest NZDF ad campaign, called “Codewords”, “steps away from traditional recruitment advertising and focuses on our audiences’ need for authentic connection”, according to the website of Clemenger BBDO, the advertising agency that produced the campaign. The campaign targets 17 to 24-year-olds and emphasises working in the NZDF as an altruistic career. “It speaks to the bonds that bind us together as an organisation,” says Magdalinos. “We want young people to see [the defence force] as a place where they will find belonging.” By using vertical video and social media spend, and not having to buy TV slots, the campaign is also cost-effective, she adds.

The people depicted in military advertising are from diverse backgrounds; in viewing material while reporting, I saw people with turbans, tā moko, tattoos, and lots of women. “We target 17 to 24-year-olds, and our advertising is based around that, but we’re after all people who are physically fit and can pass security requirements – it’s important to reflect the people we serve, both at home and abroad,” Magdalinos says. 

a beige wall with posters of two people in uniform and the words "anime" "chicken" and "bubblegum"
Advertising appeals to the target demographic of 17 to 24-year-olds as well as demonstrating the role of the NZDF to the wider public (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

“If the general public sees similar faces to themselves, they’re more inclined to trust [the institution],” agrees Nairn. Advertising for the NZDF, police and Corrections is unique, because recruitment necessarily targets a wide swathe of society. But the advertising isn’t just for potential recruits. “The police and the defence force have a stigma attached to them – they’re organisations that have a lot of power and authority in a society where we say we value everyone being equal,” Nairn says. 

You won’t see ads on TV or on billboards advocating the concept of being a software developer or a truck driver – recruitment for most professions is achieved through focusing on people who already have skills in that area. “I’ve never had plans to join the New Zealand Police, but [seeing their advertising] makes me feel better placed to understand what their objectives are, that they have my best interests at heart,” Nairn says. 

In the same way, NZDF advertising that shows participation in disaster relief, or makes links between the military and the ideas of protection and security, promotes the idea that this work is necessary to the general public. Magdalinos agrees that part of the role of the NZDF’s recruitment advertising is to promote the military to the general population, but notes that this is done in conjunction with Defence’s public affairs unit – it’s not work solely for the recruitment team to complete.

Recruitment tensions

There have been several high-profile recruitment campaigns for the military, police and Corrections roles recently as these organisations try to attract younger members from diverse backgrounds. This hasn’t always gone well; a Corrections advertisement, part of a $4m recruiting push, was banned by the Advertising Standards Authority earlier this year for its use of a “white saviour” trope. 

Nairn says that recruitment campaigns for roles in the police, military and prison system often highlight the identities and personalities of the people featured, rather than the details of the job, treating this work as an identity or vocation, not just a salary. “There’s a big focus on putting people first, so the public can empathise with them,” she says. “These ads focus on relatability and finding common ground.”

The army visiting flooded homes in the Buller region after floods in 2021. Advertising may emphasise the public good of a role in the military (Photo: Supplied, NZDF)

Advertising the defence force makes recruitment easier in another way – you’re much more likely to join the navy if your peers think it’s a cool and interesting job. Nairn notes that lots of the NZDF advertising focuses on personal development – taking leadership in a sports team transitions seamlessly to the camaraderie and organisation of a military unit. These depictions might play well with parents whose child is joining up. “It’s about regular people who can advance their skills and talents – it’s the kind of thing you want your parents to know.”

The NZDF recruitment team is “blessed” with regular data, Magdalinos says, giving them details about the demographics they’re trying to recruit from and interest from possible recruits month on month. However, it’s not always easy to tell what campaigns are more effective, as advertising runs alongside other recruiting activity, and data about the role of advertising in deciding to join an intake isn’t gathered. 

Comparing campaigns that target roles, like the 2017-18 “Passion with a purpose” adverts aimed at roles ranging from air force engineers to dog handlers, and campaigns that target values, like “Codewords”, is “like comparing apples to oranges”, Magdalinos says, but in the eight months since the Codewords campaign launched, results appear positive. “It seems to be delivering more candidates for us,” says Magdalinos. 

blue shows recruitment $, red shows advertising specifically, which is a big chunk of the total, at least a third every year since 2017
The NZDF spends millions of dollars on recruiting, but that’s only a small fraction of the overall military budget (Data: NZDF; graph: Shanti Mathias)

The role of the military in 2023

While the amount of money spent on recruitment advertising alone may seem high, it’s a small piece of the defence force’s annual budget, which was $5.2bn last year. That’s about the same as the additional $3.3bn the government allocated to land transport (highways, public transport, walking and cycling, road safety), and last year’s additional $2bn operating expenditure for the education sector (pre-schools, schools, and universities) combined – sectors which employ tens of thousands more people than the military does. Proponents of funding the military point out that, as Cyclone Gabrielle demonstrated, it plays a role in disaster relief here and overseas, and also offers stable employment with career growth potential without the requirement of tertiary study. 

Additionally, investment in the military can impact geopolitical relationships. In recent months, the Aukus defence partnership between Australia, the UK and the US has been in the spotlight, as the New Zealand government has indicated openness to becoming involved in the aspects of the pact that do not involve nuclear weapons. The Aukus countries, as well as much of western Europe, have committed to sending military resources to Ukraine. New Zealand has contributed too, $78m of military and financial support over the past year, with New Zealand soldiers helping train Ukrainian recruits in the UK, and Hipkins announcing ongoing support last week. However, without people to fill naval ships – or simply to cook food for soldiers – the level of military support New Zealand can offer its allies will be limited.

While there’s no intention to increase messaging about pay in the military’s recruitment advertising for the moment, the military recruitment posters you’ve been seeing around aren’t going anywhere. “The people joining [the NZDF] want purpose, want multiple careers – and they want to be paid well. I don’t know that pay is a driving factor,” Magdalinos says. 

No matter why people join, the $15m the NZDF spends on recruiting only gets people in the door. But the new $419m package increasing pay across the board shows that keeping them there is an order of magnitude more expensive.

Update: A sentence that mischaracterised retention bonuses in the NZDF was removed from this article

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