The Pentagon did not provide production support to the movie “Independence Day” because it portrayed the military as ineffective against the alien threat. There also was dialogue mentioning Area 51 and Will Smith’s Air Force character dated a stripper. But in 2016, the United States Army developed a months-long, multi-platform promotional campaign for the movie’s sequel.
Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) show the campaign for “Independence Day: Resurgence” was pursued to blend fiction and reality, boost recruitment, and alter the public’s perception of the Army.
Through a technologically and psychologically sophisticated campaign, the U.S. Army’s project was part of the 2016 “Patriotic Season” campaign. Personnel attempted “to associate America’s Independence with the US Army and own it.”
The Army hoped to leverage 20th Century Fox’s $150 million advertising budget for the movie to spread their messaging. A “case study” boasts of cast members and actual soldiers, who made an appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Using appropriately Hollywood rhetoric, the Army’s ad agency “laid out a strategic vision which [tied] the Army in relevant ways to the movie, demonstrating the Army’s ability to prevail against any obstacle and be the only force with the scale, scope, capabilities and critical thinking to protect our nation now and in an uncertain future.”
In particular, personnel had a “perceptual goal” to “overcome strongly held misperceptions of the Army as low-tech, ordinary,” and a “last resort option” for those looking to join the military.
The ad agency wanted to replace this impression with the idea that the Army is a “versatile, highly-trained, adaptable team.” The campaign asserted Independence Day was “brought to you by and defended by the U.S. Army.” They adopted a full-spectrum approach, using everything from TV spots, to paid digital ads, to hiring Wild Posting, a marketing agency, to set up an outdoor media campaign for buses, benches, and billboards.
Fox used the innovative technique of pretending that the events of the first film actually happened and that there was a real “War of ‘96” following the alien invasion. This included mock-ups of news broadcasts, discussion panels, and even a fake Las Vegas Tourism Board video showing tourists gambling in the ruins of the city.
The stars of the film appeared in imitation PSAs to inform the public about how they could help the war effort and urged them to sign up for ESD—the Earth Space Defense, a global military force that features heavily in “Independence Day: Resurgence.”
The JoinESD.com website was nothing more than a “landing experience” including ESD-themed puzzle games, which became a click funnel that redirected to GoArmy.com, the Army’s primary recruitment website.
Fox agreed that their Warof96.com site would include a prominent link to JoinESD, further boosting visits to the Army’s own websites.
The Army created hashtag campaigns and hired a social media influencer known as Cat Valdes to produce a video explaining the site and encouraging viewers to visit it.
The U.S. military astroturfed an entire viral internet phenomenon. Through paid search marketing, users were directed to the Army’s content and websites, and they paid for social media ads to boost the unique content they created.
Puzzles on JoinESD.com were based around scientific and technical challenges to inspire the recruitment of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) students.
No production assistance was provided by the Pentagon for the sequel, but still, the Army’s promotional efforts linked the film to the real-life American military by “drawing parallels between the fictitious themes (overcoming complex environments, rising up to defeat any opponent) and where the writers get that from—the real U.S. Army.”
Reflecting this logic, the film portrays the ESD as overwhelmingly American, a kind of global (even interplanetary) police force around which every other country’s population unites to fight off the outside threat.
“Independence Day: Resurgence” propagates the narrative that the world should get behind U.S. imperialism and accept—even be grateful for—the U.S.’s position as the leading military superpower.
In the campaign’s first phase leading up to the movie’s release in June 2016, the Army worked to “expose prospects to the U.S. Army as a versatile, advanced, highly-capable force in a way that’s hyper-relevant to IDR fans’ passion for the movie.” The appeal of this global force was fueled by online recruitment, social sharing, and producing videos “highlighting [the] Army as the leading force, which utilized alien technology to advance human technology and fight back.”
At times, the briefings make it seem like the Army thought that the events of the two “Independence Day” films had actually happened. Army-funded TV spots in the spring of 2016 featured an ESD-deployed father talking to his son via video chat.
As the documents describe, this was designed to raise “awareness of the ESD forces and reach out to new recruits. We’re going to focus on the people who care about them while they’re away.”
Emphasizing this intentional blending of fiction and reality, one of the aims of the second phase—which began shortly before the movie came out—was to “highlight that fictional movies and heroics are based on real-life Army soldiers and heroes who make a difference for the nation and the world every day.”
This phase involved positioning the Army as the institution “most responsible for American independence and inspire prospects to be a part of it by leveraging the central themes of the movie.”
According to one briefing, the Army recommended that their campaign, “utilize the core themes of the film, surrounding independence, to continue to align Army with Patriotism, Independence and the equity of the holiday to further build ownability.”
The attempt by the military to co-opt the national holiday, and the ideas behind it, show how they tried to occupy not just political and cultural territory but philosophical and ideological territory as well.
Roger Stahl, an academic specializing in military influence on popular media, commented, “They try to colonize—’own’—the holiday and even the sacred notion of ‘independence.’ I mean, first the film franchise did it, and now the Army. As a true American, that really sticks in my craw.”
Trying to “own” the holiday was made even more absurd by the fact that the U.S. Army did not even exist in the 1770s. Furthermore, U.S. independence was as much the result of legislators, politicians, and free thinkers as it was a consequence of military triumphs.
Phase two additionally included promotional screenings on military bases and “soldier reaction” videos put out via traditional social media and live updates posted to “emerging platforms,” like Periscope and Snapchat. These posts were liked, shared, tagged, and retweeted by Army employees, alongside content amplified “via paid social media ads.” They even arranged for “soldier actor interaction linking reality and fiction.”
In addition to the screenings and activities around them, the Army’s campaign cost over $2 million, and their measurements for the project’s effectiveness relied heavily on what they termed “perceptual drivers” and “perceptional research points,” i.e. the messaging and associations they injected into people’s minds.
Despite the sophistication of the Army’s campaign, it was a flop. The only tangible measure for success was an estimated increase in visits to goarmy.com, from around 1.5 million per month to 3 million. But according to the Army’s metrics, this likely produced only 5,000 “Pre-screened Quality/STEM/Tech Driven” leads for potential Army recruits.
The sequel bombed with audiences and critics. It made less than $400 million worldwide on a $315 million production and marketing budget, and it boasts a 29% score on Rotten Tomatoes.
Was it worth it? Even for those who may believe in a need for military recruitment and the Army “owning” a national holiday, is it worth spending $2 million of taxpayer money on a fake viral internet phenomenon? Especially a campaign based around a terrible film that no one asked for and few people wanted?
These documents reveal how wasteful and ineffective the Army’s chillingly sophisticated approach was for advertising around the movie.
The Army went to extreme lengths to associate the fictional battle against a fictional threat with their role in the real world, and even with abstract and sacred notions, such as independence and freedom that they claimed for themselves. Yet, their campaign was immediately forgettable.