The Navy Paid a Marketing Firm $2 Million for Its Esports PR Disaster

The U.S. Navy paid the “full-service marketing agency” Young & Rubicam $2 million to help it with its disastrous foray into esports, according to documents obtained by Motherboard. According to the documents, obtained by Motherboard via a Freedom of Information Act request, the Navy contracted with Young & Rubicam as part of a recruiting effort to reach the youth market, shape its brand, and develop leads for recruitment.

“The Navy needs to identify innovative ways to expand the reach of Navy awareness, and generate interest with today’s youth,” the documents said. “E-Sports provides an excellent opportunity to reach out to youth who fall into our Creative Innovation pillar, as they are typically our core audience of ingenuity seekers who are interested in technology, gaming, arts and entertainment.”

The Navy’s “creative innovation” pillar is a marketing term it uses in its licensing documents. It’s not a core discipline or character value, but rather one of the six “brand” pillars the Navy bases it’s marketing communications on. The others are strength, opportunity, direction, teamwork, and meaningful adventure.

The documents also provide a clear objective for why the Navy started streaming on Twitch. “The objective of this initiative is to develop a relationship between the Navy and the E-Sports community, to encourage these ingenuity seekers to view the Navy as aligning with their interests and providing the rewards that they seek, ultimately inspiring prospects to want to join the U.S. Navy and the influencers to support or recommend service,” the document said.

Members of the U.S. Navy esports team have repeatedly said they are not recruiters. This is technically true because a “recruiter” is a specific assignment in the Navy. “We’re here to show that we play video games, literally,” Machinist’s mate First Class Andrew “Saltysn1pe” Crosswhite said during an early Navy stream. “We’re not here to recruit. That is not the point of this.”

This distinction between building brand awareness and active recruiting is at odds with most viewer’s perception of the Navy’s presence on Twitch. If recruitment isn’t the end goal of building brand awareness, then what is it? According to the work order between Young & Rubicam, it was to “develop a specific E-Gaming strategy that includes partnering and collaborating with entities involved in the E-Gaming industry, allowing for Navy branded content pushed to those who follow these sports. The messaging here will put the Navy brand on various aspects of the E-Gaming experience, vastly increasing awareness, and aligning the Navy to this industry.”

The documents explain the end goal of this project and the metrics the Navy will use to measure Young & Rubicam’s success. In short—it wants esports to generate leads for applicants. That’s recruiting.

Specifically, it wanted Young & Rubicam to create “customized landing pages allowing for Navy articles and sponsored content, with a focus on High Quality markets and potential applicants” and to facilitate “Navy takeover of E-Sports pages,” and “Navy branding on in-game aspects from player jerseys to virtual advertisements.”

Young & Rubicam would also “measure/track leads originating from E-Gaming content ( views; requests for information; chats; and online applications)” and “measure volume and sentiment from generated E-Gaming social media content.”

Leads don’t necessarily turn into recruits, but they are warm bodies the Navy thinks might be interested in a Navy career. The U.S. Navy’s foray into esports has always been about recruiting. Yeah, it’s also about building brand awareness and reaching out to a community, but the end goal of all that is getting people to sign up to join. These documents make that clear.

According to the documents, the Navy paid Young & Rubicam $2 million for this service. That’s a drop in the bucket for the Navy, which has estimated it will spend more than $200 million on recruitment and advertising in 2020. According to Capt. Matt Boren, head of marketing and advertising for Navy Recruiting Command, “the $2M order to [Young & Rubicam] was for Twitch and other partnerships and represented the Navy’s planned Esports investment for [2020].”

“The purpose of the Navy’s esports team is designed for outreach and awareness,” Commander Lara Bollinger, Public Affairs Officer, Navy Recruiting Command told Motherboard in an email. “The Navy does not actively recruit on Twitch or through such streaming platforms, and the esports team members are there to answer questions about their experiences in the Navy.”

So far, it does not appear to be money well spent. The sentiment generated from the Navy’s efforts on Twitch have been overwhelmingly negative. Trolls and activists disrupted the U.S. Army’s streaming efforts, which almost lead to a first amendment lawsuit. Public reaction to the Pentagon Twitch streams was so negative that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) attempted to file legislation that would prevent the military from using its budget to stream games online. Both the U.S. Navy and Army have taken long breaks from streaming. The Army has returned and it’s still not going well.

Two weeks ago, an official U.S. Navy Twitch stream included overt references to the bombing of Nagasaki and veiled references to a racial slur. “We have paused streaming and are re-evaluating how we vet users who are allowed to play with us on stream in an effort to ensure that this does not happen again,” Command Lara Bollinger of the U.S. Navy Public Affairs Office told Motherboard after the incident.

The U.S. Army, the National Guard, and the U.S. Air Force are also streaming on Twitch with similarly mixed results.

Young & Rubicam did not immediately respond to our request for comment.

Update: This article has been updated with comment from the U.S. Navy.

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