A few years ago, I was in Washington, D.C. for my niece’s graduation from Georgetown University. My wife and I stayed at a hotel across the Potomac in Arlington. Early that Saturday morning she, her brother and I went out for an exercise walk and ended up in Arlington National Cemetery, an amazingly tranquil place at 7:30 am. Walking up one of the paths between the gravesites, I saw the headstone for General Maxwell R. Thurman, my former client on the U.S. Army account at N.W. Ayer. In addition to his name, rank and vital dates were engraved the words “Be All You Can Be.” I was stunned. Not a lot of clients, I suspect, have their ad campaigns engraved on their headstones. It reminded me what a special experience working on the Army at N.W. Ayer had been. There has been a lot written about that account, that campaign and that time. Everyone has his or her own memory of it; this is mine.
Let me begin by saying that I did not write the line “Be All You Can Be” for the U.S. Army. It would have made my life a lot easier if I had. I would not have had to explain that while, yes, I did write most of the initial television, radio and print that became that campaign, the actual line and idea belonged to a very talented copywriter in my groupname Earl Carter.
The campaign was created as part of a pre-emptive initiative on the part of the agency a year in advance of the open solicitation of the account by other agencies as was required by law. The Army group had a new Creative Director, Lou Di Joseph, who had just come over from Y&R. He wanted to go to the Army with a new campaign entirely different from anything we had done before. We did a lot research, of course, the germ of which was that young people wanted skill training, preferably high tech. This was 1980.
One conference room was our “war room” and we had many, many, many theme lines pined up on the wall. We needed three, because we were going to present three alternate campaigns and recommend, well … the one they liked best. The line that became “Be All You Can Be” was initially presented as “Be All You Can Be in Today’s Technical Army.” In my recollection, Lou Di Joseph pulled the crumpled up piece of paper out of the trash and tore off the second part of that line. Another line that would be presented was “Yes, You Can.” There was a third, but I can’t remember it.
We were ready to go. Now all we had to do was flesh out each of these campaigns with about five TV spots, five radio and six or seven print ads. The only problem was that Earl Carter had written two of the three lines, and could not possibly write all the pieces needed for both campaigns. As his supervisor, I told him that since both lines were his, he could choose which campaign he wanted to flesh out for the presentation. He opted for “Yes, You Can.” While certainly nobody knew that “Be All You Can Be” would become what it became, I did feel it was the better idea and I asked him if he was sure that’s what he wanted to do? He said he was. Which is how I came to write the scripts and ads for the rollout of the “Be All You Can Be” campaign.
Working on the Army account was one of the highlights of my career. I worked with great people on a great product. And with a client who quite literally took the campaign to his grave.