Sympathy for the Gatekeeper

In Sunday’s Oregonian, Steve Duin’s column takes the Army National Guard to task for a deceptively-packaged direct mail campaign. According to the column, the envelope appeared to be a credit-card solicitation. Upon opening, the recipient finds a piece of plastic that is “not a credit card. This is money in the bank.” The pitch implies that there’s up to $60,000 to be had by signing up for the National Guard.

At least one of these pieces went to a 14-year old boy, whose parents tipped off Duin.

As the parent of another 14-year old, I find this more than a little alarming. Especially since the solicitation asks for the target’s cell phone and email address. It’s my job as parent to screen these sorts of things and decide what offers he gets to consider. I can’t keep the outside world away from him — I can only slow it down. When I was a kid, if someone wanted to contact me he had to call the house, where the phone would probably be answered by my parents. Now, a cell phone allows anyone who gets the number to cut me out.

On the other hand, I’m more inclined than Mr. Duin to give the Guard a little slack here. Although the mail piece was definitely over the line of decency, they have a few things in their favor:

1. A firm spokesperson was adamant that if the kid had filled out the form, the name would not have gone to a local recruiter, because it’s against the law for them to talk to 14-year-olds. So this is not the first wave of a campaign aimed at high school freshmen — it was more likely an honest mistake.

2. Unlike the tobacco companies (also mentioned in the column for some deceptive offers), the National Guard represents the good guys. They do a lot of good in the state, and that mission will continue whatever happens in Iraq. I don’t think anyone would argue that they shouldn’t be recruiting new members.

2. Because of Iraq, it’s a whole lot tougher to recruit now than it used to be. And a lot of people who might have listened to a recruiter’s pitch before now won’t even come to the phone or open a straighforward mail piece.

3. Which leaves the Guard with this question — how can we get a conversation started?

Unfortunately, the answer they chose — get ’em to open the envelope by disguising it as something else — wasn’t the right one.

But similar techniques are used by direct mailers all the time. We’re all looking for ways to get past the screener, and get our prospects to pay attention to our message. We do it — most of us, anyway — because we believe we have something of value to offer, and that the prospects will come to the same conclusion if we can just get them to talk to us. In its misguided way, that’s all the National Guard was trying to do.

In this case, the Guard is the marketer, and my kid (who eventually will be be old enough for a recruiter to call him legally) is the prospect. I, for once in my life, am the gatekeeper. And I resent anyone who tries to get past me using deception or tricks.

This is a great opportunity for those of us in the persuasion business to look at our efforts from the other side of the reception desk.


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5 thoughts on “Sympathy for the Gatekeeper

  1. Very good article. I was once on the dark side of the force as a National Guard Recruiter. Targeting freshman is not too far from the accepted tactics that they would use. It is not illegal for a recruiter to talk to a minor, it is illegal to process a minor. This kind of activity is called cultivating, in the hopes that this child will talk to their freinds and in a few years there will be a bumber crop of recruits. Better yet, the student might know some seniors or juniors that they can persuade to see the recruiter. As with all sales, if you have a product or service that you believe in, you will resort to bad practices if you are threatened with losing your job if you don’t produce. Recruiters are the worst form of scum and are trained to poison the undeveloped reasoning skills of children. If you are the gatekeeper, go to an anti recruiting website and fill out a school no contact form. {}

  2. Interesting question of fact here. Steve Duin quotes Andy Hogan of LM & O advertising (who administered the campaign for the Guard) as saying “The military is prohibited from talking to a minor.”

    Meanwhile, the poster above, who identifies himself as a former Guard recruiter, claims that it’s legal for a recruiter to talk to a minor, but not to “process” that minor.

    I’d be very interested to learn what the actual law actually says. Anyone out there ready to break the tie, and back up their answer?

  3. Roger That!!!
    FY-06 National Guard Enlistment Criteria.
    Para 2-3.a(2)(a)
    “Recruiting procurement personnel will obtain parental or guardian consent for applicants who have not reached their 18th birthday. Consent will not be obtained prior to 7 days before the 17th birthday. Parental or guardian consent must be obtained prior to the MEPS physical examination.”

    The last sentance says it all. Also, keep in mind that recruiters and their commands are masters at dancing in the gray area of the regulations. If they could not talk to minors, they could not do lunch room visits at high schools to hand out promotional items, even most seniors are still minors. They can talk to whoever they want until it comes time to “process”.

  4. P.S.
    Just to make this point clear, I routinely received leads from the 1-800-go-guard referral service with children 16 years old. Recruiters will most likely not persue these leads because they cannot convert them into accessions until age 17, but they can foster these leads if they so choose. Also, there are many PowerPoint presentations that the guard uses as school entry vehicles to get in front of students. They are disguised as Conflict resolution classes and Carreer resources of all kinds. The only goal of a recruiter is to get leads, not teach classes. You may never know that the recruiter was in front of your childs’ class. A “GateKeeper” must be vigilant against covert tactics, recruiters know how to get past you!!!

    Thank You and I will leave this forum to the rest of the unaware world.