Jonathan Majors’ ad campaign for the U.S. Army, pulled after his Saturday arrest for allegedly assaulting a woman during a domestic dispute and since scrubbed from the organization’s official channels, was no ordinary sequence of commercials. The two spots, filmed in the Southern California area in January, were crucial components of a much larger ongoing rebranding effort for the military force as it pivots its recruitment message for Gen Z in the years following the Afghanistan drawdown.
In the days prior to Majors’ arrest (in a statement the Army said it was “deeply concerned by the allegations”), The Hollywood Reporter had spoken with the campaign’s architects about its rollout: Major General Alex Fink, head of Army Enterprise Marketing — equivalent to a corporate chief marketing officer — as well as John Carstens, executive creator director of Team DDB, its ad firm. Both discussed why Majors, whose criminal defense attorney has announced he’s “completely innocent,” was their ideal front man. According to Carstens, he fit the needs of their creative brief, which called for a figure of Gen Z mentorship age, “someone who could be a big brother or big sister to the young adult making this decision,” who possessed an “appropriate physical and moral presence” to pull off the script.
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Carstens himself recalled putting Majors’ name in the mix, having taken note of his performance in HBO’s since-canceled Lovecraft Country. “There’s something about him, there’s a certain kind of gravitas. I found him to be just a really interesting screen presence on that show.” The executive saw the actor as a rising star, not a celebrity pitchman, explaining that there was no intention for Majors to be an ongoing face for the Army. “He has become much more famous recently, in the months since [the commercials were shot], with Ant Man and Creed coming out. Nobody knew about [Sundance hit] Magazine Dreams. This Army campaign is right in the middle of this rapid sequence.” (Carstens and Team DDB declined to comment further in light of Majors’ arrest.)
For Fink, a plus for Majors was that the actor had previously been outspoken about the formative influence of his relatives’ life in the Armed Forces. (The actor has not himself served in the military.) “Any time you can look for somebody with a connection back to military service, that’s a bonus.” During the press tour for his 2022 Korean War film Devotion, Majors described how the project was personal, as his paternal grandfather was a veteran of the conflict.
“Growing up, many of my peers didn’t see military service as a viable option for their futures,” Majors said in a statement pertaining to his work on the Army campaign, which was provided to THR before his arrest. “I’ve seen firsthand what a career in the military can do for an individual thanks to the legacy of service in my family and I am passionate about helping today’s youth understand those possibilities too. No matter who you are or where you come from, the Army empowers you to become the best version of yourself. I’ve always leaned into that idea to live up to my full potential at all times.”
Historically, high-profile actors including Kirk Douglas, Harry Belafonte, Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman have served in the U.S. military. During the post-draft era, there have been comparatively few prominent Hollywood performers with such experience. Adam Driver is a notable exception, having joined the Marine Corps following the Sept. 11 attacks; he was medically discharged from service prior to deployment in Iraq.
The pair of Majors commercials, shot over six days and directed by Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) with music by composer Rob Simonsen (Stranger Things), sought what Carsten and Fink defined as a production vision of “epic realism,” inspired by films like 1917, Dunkirk and Saving Private Ryan. They follow the Army through its history, with Majors speaking to the viewer while vignettes unfurl at, for instance, the Panama Canal Zone. Some scenes were shot at the Joint Forces Training Base at Los Alamitos. Malibu stood in for the Normandy invasion.
The high-gloss commercials’ costs weren’t disclosed. Carsten noted that the budget was brought down by the ability to rely on the organization’s own resources, including equipment and locations.
The Army has a requirement to enlist more than 100,000 new recruits each year. “When youth close their eyes today, they see a distant star, that’s revered but not relevant, appreciated but not understood,” explained Fink. “What’s important to youth is community, connection, passion, and purpose. We don’t get a lot of credit for doing that. So as a brand that’s not good.” He added, “That’s the marketing challenge.”
Carstens noted of the new campaign: “Patriotism is not the point. Patriotism doesn’t really play with our Gen Z audience. Different people have different interpretations of it. So, it’s not going through history to salute the flag and that being a reason to serve in the Army. It must be something people right now think they’re interested in — protecting and defending Americans, as opposed to somebody’s idea of what America is or what America ought to be. So, we wanted to find examples to make an argument that is relevant to what’s in it for me in the future I want to have, and the dent in the universe that I want to make.”
The Majors spots had been in high-visibility rotation, including during the NCAA’s ongoing March Madness basketball tournament. They would’ve been broadcast during the championship game as well. Now the Army has put them on hold.
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