At lunchtime Friday the Inner Harbor buzzed with martial activity — all of it carefully calibrated not just to whip up excitement for the Army-Navy game Saturday, but also to sell any youngsters nearby on the idea of a career in the military.

Black helicopters lumbered through the sky, gray ships bobbed in the water, and on land dozens of young military musicians blasted fight songs through shining brass.


On the field, the Army-Navy game is a contest between two middling teams. But patriotism, tradition and timing give the event outsized prominence in the college football calendar. And for the marketing staffs of the two service branches, that makes it an excellent opportunity to sell what the military has to offer to would-be recruits.

"We know we have a big audience and folks are really willing to listen to the story that the Army and the Navy and the rest of the armed services want to tell," said Capt. David Bouve, the Navy's director of marketing.

Mary B. Harms, who teaches marketing at the University of Maryland's business school, said smart brands are always looking to capitalize on big events — and the Army-Navy game, which pairs the excitement of college football with the pageantry of a military show, makes obvious sense for those looking to capture the attention of potential recruits and the public at large.

"The fact that they are tying in with an event that is considered to be very positive in the minds of the consumers, that's really important," Harms said.

Marketing specialists from the service academies, the Army and the Navy have invested months of planning in the game, working out strategies for marketing during the TV broadcast, on social media and at the M&T Bank Stadium itself.

On Friday, the Army set up imposing displays on Ravens Walk featuring a Humvee and heavily armored vehicles. Mark Rickert, a spokesman for the Army recruiting unit in Baltimore, said his battalion would be running strength-testing competitions to reinforce the service's "Army Strong" motto.

A team from the Navy's ad agency was looking over displays it had set up opposite the Army's. The material emphasized the Navy SEALs and the technology the Navy has at its disposal.

Bouve described compared the SEAL displays to the shiny toy a store puts in the window to pull people inside. Then they can learn the ways a career at sea lets them develop engineering skills, he said. Visitors will have a chance to maneuver mini robots with a video game controller or try out a virtual reality headset that simulates piloting a small submarine.

Because the military is primarily trying to reach men and women ages 17 to 24, officials said social media is becoming an especially important part of its efforts.

The Navy posted a time-lapse video Friday afternoon on Instagram of a special warfare boat being wheeled into position near the Ray Lewis statue outside the stadium and invited users to stop by the displays.

But the emphasis on social media and high-tech displays doesn't mean that good old-fashioned television isn't important, too.

The game gets a boost because the rest of the nation's Bowl Championship Series teams have completed their regular seasons, leaving Army-Navy the only matchup on the schedule. ESPN has come to Baltimore to broadcast its College Gameday pregame show, and the game itself will be broadcast live on CBS.

The broadcasts typically show off the cadets and the midshipmen watching from the stands in their dress uniforms, and capture the parachute display jumps and flyovers before kickoff. Bouve said that the secretary of the Navy plans to swear in 20 new sailors in the end zone during the third quarter — partly in the hope of provoking a powerful "Hey! That could be me" moment in the audience watching at home.

Both services will also run ads during the broadcast.


The Army is set to air a football-themed commercial it started running during the NFL season — it depicts what looks like a football team waiting to take the field, but as the players burst from the tunnel they are revealed to be special forces soldiers heading out on a mission.

Yet for all the time and money spent on the advertising push, measuring the effects can be difficult.

Professor David R. Segal, a military specialist at the University of Maryland, said the services probably do get a recruiting boost from the game. He said there are more obvious gains in morale and fostering a spirit of cooperation between the Army and the Navy.

The military's advertising practices have attracted scrutiny. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, attacked as wasteful National Guard spending on NASCAR and IndyCar sponsorships. The Guard ended those deals in August, joining the other military branches, which also concluded backing NASCAR was not good value for money.

Bouve said it's difficult to measure the impact of advertising. But he said it was important for the Navy to be telling a story about itself to the public because its work is often hidden.

"The Navy's out there all the time," he said. "They're out, they're far away, they're over the horizon."