The Persuasiveness of Imperfection: What You Can Learn from the U.S. Navy

The U.S. Navy has always been at the forefront of marketing. It’s innovative use of Hollywood as a recruiting tool (Top Gun, The Hunt For Red October, Pearl Harbor) far exceeds what the other branches of the service have accomplished.

And now, the Navy has taken another pioneering step, by allow documentary filmmakers to produce a warts-and-all “reality show” about life aboard the U.S.S. Nimitz. Rather than focusing on the glam life of the fighter jocks, or following the captain around, “Carrier” looks at the lives of 15 regular crewmembers.

Nor does the documentary shy away from showing the frailties and imperfections of its characters. As the LA Times notes:

One sailor calmly tells the camera that America went to war for oil. Another, while slurring drunk and again when stone sober, is shown making racist comments. Yet another naval serviceman, who counsels crew members about sexually appropriate behavior, is caught having sex with a shipmate of a lower rank.

Later, a fighter pilot openly questions the rationale for the Iraq war and mulls over the morality of bombing the war-torn country. And finally, a range of enlisted personnel and officers plainly voice disappointment over not dropping bombs during their mission.

It’s a far cry from the frantic whitewashing that civilian politicians often engage in where the military is concerned. It may even make many of the Navy’s officers and supporters nervous; Admiral Gary Roughead, the CNO (Chief of Naval Operations), even emailed about 1,000 officers and some civilians to inform them about the documentary and explain why the Navy agreed to give the filmmakers complete artistic freedom.

Yet what “Carrier” demonstrates is that the Navy understands that marketing has changed, and that an authentic look at life in the Navy, imperfections and all, is more persuasive than a sanitized commercial. In today’s more transparent world, the willingness to allow one’s flaws and shortcomings to be broadcast to the world is a sign of strength rather than weakness. It says, “I know I’m not perfect. But if you know the truth about me, I think you’ll respect me and listen to what I have to say with an open mind.”

Letting “Carrier” be filmed is a difficult decision. After all, seeing certain Navy sailors show themselves to be racists and hypocrites seems like it would give the service’s enemies more ammunition. But I’m glad that the Navy believes in the intelligence and perceptiveness of its intended audience (high school and college students) and in its own fundamental sense of honor and good.

Respect your audience, believe in yourself, and tell the truth. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about how these same principles might apply to everything in life from marketing your products to presidential campaigns.

I think Admiral Roughead shows an admirable grasp of this truth when he wrote:

“The snapshot is frank and may be somewhat disconcerting to some who came into the Navy some time ago. However, that said, I believe it will also resonate with a significant segment of our country.”

2 thoughts on “The Persuasiveness of Imperfection: What You Can Learn from the U.S. Navy

  1. This is very interesting because I think it resonates with the societal yearning for everyone’s “15 minutes” of fame. These situations of bigotry and inappropriate behavior have been intertwined with the military for hundreds or years but it is only with documentaries like “Carrier” that people see our military personnel for who they really are….people just like us.

    Would the same outcome take place if we did a documentary called “Search” and followed 15 engineers around the Google campus? I’m not sure. But what I do know is that the power of video and reality television has definitely had a huge impact on our society and will continue to as long as sites like YouTube provide an outlet for everyone to gain that 15 minutes and networks keep producing reality shows about everything under the sun.

    Do I think this show will have a positive or negative impact on the Navy? I’m not really sure. Will it increase recruitment? I have to think it will because people may join the Navy in the hopes of gaining fame rather than serving their country. For this reason, I think the marketing ploy works.

  2. Derek, good to hear from you!

    My prediction is that this will have a positive impact on the Navy. Presenting a portrait of a flawed but ultimately positive experience is very compelling.

    Given that “Carrier” seems to be a one-off, however, I don’t think that many fame-seekers will be joining the Navy.

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