November 1st, 2019

How Brands Can Avoid Exploiting Veterans


Ace Metrix

A fine line exists between a brand supporting veterans and using veterans to support a brand’s interest, but where is that line drawn? With Veterans Day on its way we sought to find out. 

A quick glance at our quantitative data didn’t sound any alarms or provide the answers we were seeking. Thirty-five Veteran ads from 23 brands over the past year usually scored around or significantly above industry norms on our component scores such as Likeability and Information. 

Could it be that these types of ads come with little risk to the brands that tout them? Or is there more underneath the surface?

In this case we found that the voice of the viewer really lends insight into the perception of these types of ads. Perhaps respondents hesitate to score military-themed ads poorly, but when given a chance to express their reactions beyond quantitative measures, true feelings come forward. 

Using our new Cultural Perception system, which leverages our free-form comments, we were able to evaluate the extent to which ads featuring veterans and active military have a positive and negative impact on a multicultural audience. 

Almost all of the Veteran ads from the past year had encouraging or inspiring messages that drove some level of Empowerment (positive cultural impact), with almost one-third scoring in the top .1% of all ads on this metric. 

However, about half sparked some cause for concern with scores on Exploit. The negative impact arose from a number of issues, with the most common revolving around impressions of demeaning veterans and/or pandering to the audience. Looking further into the viewer’s voices, here are some insights we uncovered to help brands avoid possible negative effects of patriotic messaging:

Balance the Branding

Unfortunately, there’s not much room between too much and too little branding when it comes to veteran ads. Making it all about the brand with heavy cues, like colors and slogans, has marketing ploy written all over it in the viewers’ eyes. However, an ad that shares an emotional story just to end with a flash of the brand’s logo feels cheap and manipulative for the viewer.

Ancestry found the right balance in the example above. With the logo in the corner throughout, viewers were aware of who the advertiser was from the beginning. For those familiar with Ancestry, they could listen to the message of the ad in context of who was sharing it. Overall, “Descendants of Honor” was able to drive a strong Empower score without Exploit signal.

Give Veterans a Voice

Even if a brand is doing the most amazing things for veterans, over communicating those efforts sounds boastful, in turn creating a sense of exploitation. It doesn’t help if an impersonal voice-over is narrating. Instead, let veterans voice how those efforts have impacted them. In doing so, this helps manage our previous point about balancing the branding.

Aside from product placement throughout the ad and a brand banner at the beginning, Chevrolet gave veterans a chance to share how they found purpose in their post-military lives. As shown in a sample of viewer comments below, hearing from the veterans prioritized their stories over selling a product:

“I think Chevrolet did a wonderful job. Veterans never stop serving others and their country and I never thought this was a commercial for trucks. They didn’t focus on themselves, they focused on helping veterans do what they love to do with the help of their trucks.” Female 36-49

“While the company wasn’t the main focus of the ad, I like that vets were helping to heal nature.” Male 50+

“I love the people featured in this ad. The man in the ad reminders me of a good ole boy and it made me think about the young Veterans in my family and their adjustment to life after war. I agree with the statements and I think the project is super cool! I don’t imagine myself buying a Chevy truck but it has improved my idea of the company.” Female 21-35

Discounts are Appreciated, but Donations are Impactful

On the surface discounts for veterans and active military are seen as a kind gesture and a majority of viewers don’t perceive anything beyond that. However, it’s not always enough to steer clear of cultural landmines with some discount ads coming off as Exploitative and others not. 

Some viewers realize discounts still end with brands making profits, whereas donating time or money ends with brands giving back. Additionally, while discounts exclusively apply to veterans and military officials, donations provide a chance for any and all customers to get involved with the related cause.

In “Brian & Lucy,” Purina employed all three points to form a strong emotional connection with viewers (depicted in the bar chart below). With a score of 10 on Powerful, it’s one of the highest performing ads in our database on this metric. Moreover, through CSR initiatives and philanthropic efforts Purina connected in a heartfelt and inspiring manner.

Purina "Brian & Lucy" Emo Bar Chart

It’s hard to draw that fine line between empowering and exploitative messaging, but following our three tips can lead marketers in the right direction. There are numerous risks that impact the Cultural Perception of an ad featuring and promoting veterans and active military members. Everything from the macro-level elements, like the industry and the brand’s reputation, to the micro-level, like when a discount is offered, play a part in how consumers perceive the strategy. We recommend testing your creative before airing to make sure those macro and micro factors are not a risk for your brand and your message.


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