As youtube has become a centre for emerging pop culture brands, it has also become the target of the US military. In this episode we take a dive into military-sponsored youtube, looking at pop music, influencers and an episode of Dude Perfect set on board a US Navy aircraft carrier.

When I first started working on state-sponsored entertainment media around a decade ago, I did not envision that I’d ever be spending my time watching a bunch of millenial surftard dudebros fucking around on a US Navy aircraft carrier.

But, commitment is what it is, so feel free to file this one under ‘Tom watched this so I didn’t have to’.

Around the time I conceived of the Spy Culture website there was a little changing of the guard at the DOD Hollywood office. Vince Ogilvie had served as Phil Strub’s number 2 for several years, mostly working on unscripted and other such products while Strub focused on movies and scripted TV.

Ogilvie is, nonetheless, credited on several major productions – episodes of 24, the movies Eagle Eye, Terminator Salvation, Contagion (on which he was the project officer), and Real Steel, the one with the boxing robots. There are other movies too, lesser known ones like The Dry Land, Memorial Day and Dear John. He is also credited on Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, a video game.

He left the job in 2012, I think, and some of the ELO reports from that period say how the DOD were looking for a new head of unscripted projects. The man they eventually settled on was David Evans, who had spent over a decade as a public relations specialist in the US military. Evans would eventually take over from Strub in 2018 as head of the Pentagon’s Hollywood office, before being replaced a couple of years later by Glenn Roberts.

Evans oversaw an updating of the office – he set up a new computer system for looking up records of productions that had asked for assistance, which included asking the Army for records from their archives going back to 1986. Both Roger and I have put in FOIA requests about this and so far have got nowhere, the Army isn’t playing ball.

Dave also updated the military-Hollywood office’s approach, foregrounding reality TV in a way they hadn’t before, and looking to emerging platforms like streaming services and youtube as a means of reaching new audiences. This has been quite successful, with the legacy of his time both as Strub’s number 2 and his replacement being everything from Inside Combat Rescue to Operation Christmas Drop.

Youtube is an interesting area, because numerous militaries are using it as a PR platform. The Russian Army Choir is my personal favourite, they do a lot of emotive covers of Western songs which are both beautiful and amusing.

Strangely, they haven’t been banned from youtube during the recent purges. I’m glad about this, just puzzled why banning athletes from competing in the Special Olympics is a more appropriate response to an army invading a country than banning that army from using youtube.

In early 2019 the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China got into a music video battle over whether Taiwan is or isn’t part of China. The People’s Liberation Army featured in their video, so the Republic of China Armed Forces responded in kind.

The US Air Force has its own Rock Band, Max Impact, and the US Army keeps releasing terrible songs and music videos on youtube.

In other examples, FARC have released rap tracks dissing the Columbian government, leading to the Columbian National Army releasing their own song in retaliation. Even Lockheed Martin have got in on the act, paying an indie band to perform in front of footage of the F-35.

It all goes back to the notorious Katy Perry music video where she splits up with her boyfriend and joins the Marine Corps. Their Hollywood office reports noted:

Marine Corps provided support to the production of a music video for Katy Perry at MCB Camp Pendleton 16, 17 and 24 February. Video depicts Ms. Perry leaving behind a past life and become a United States Marine. Video airs at 1923 EST, 21 March. Viewed more than 4 million times on YouTube by 23 March and was covered in major media outlets in the US, Europe, Canada and India.

Youtube: An Emerging Market for Military Propaganda

Another case study I want to briefly outline is the recruitment campaign around the release of Independence Day: Resurgence. Fox’s promotional strategy involved acting as though the events of the original movie were real, and they got the stars of the film to do imitation PSAs about the importance of ESD – the Earth Space Defence, a kind of global military set up after the war of 1996.

The US Army piggybacked on this with their own recruitment site – JoinESD.com, which contained Independence Day-themed puzzle games and ultimately redirected or acted as a funnel for GoArmy.com. They were particularly looking for techy types – engineers and so on, which the Army struggles to attract due to the perception that it’s full of idiots.

As part of the recruitment effort, Fox agreed that their own Warof96.com website would include a prominent link to JoinESD.com, helping drive traffic. The Army also paid for billboards, social media ads – a wide spectrum of marketing to get people to visit the site.

They even hired a youtuber, Cat Valdes, to produce a video explaining the site and encouraging people to visit it.

I wrote an extended breakdown of the Army’s documents on this massively expansive and expensive movie tie-in recruitment campaign for Shadowproof, if you want further details.

For today’s purposes, I want to highlight how various militaries are using youtube for propaganda purposes, sometimes in explicit ways and sometimes in less explicit ways. I’ve seen episodes of Honest Trailers that were sponsored by the US Army, but the Cat Valdes video only mentions the Army’s sponsorship in the description – and includes yet another link to GoArmy.com.

So I think that the DOD are at the front of the pack when it comes to exploiting the opportunities youtube has to offer, especially in terms of reaching a younger audience who don’t watch much network TV. Partly because network TV tells you what to watch, when to watch it, and for the younger generations entertainment distribution and consumption has simply moved on.

Dude Perfect, Top Gun: Maverick and the US Navy

One of the more obnoxious marriages in this particular corner of the military-entertainment complex is Dude Perfect and the US Navy. I admit, I have only watched one episode of Dude Perfect and it was this one we’re going to look at, so all my opinions of the show in general are impressionistic.

From what I can tell, it’s a reality TV show that goes out on youtube where a bunch of guys, most of which look a bit too old for doing what’s essentially kids TV, fuck about doing stuff. It’s really generic, there’s nothing exceptional about this content in any way – no original humour, no slant or spin of any kind. It’s literally like watching any random half a dozen American guys doing something and reacting on social media.

Of course, that means it is enormously popular because it doesn’t offend anyone. Blandness sells.

Thus, from a PR perspective the show is a perfect vehicle for a bunch of military themes and messaging. It appeals to an audience they want to recruit from – kids – either as employees or as more general advocates. It is unlikely to piss anyone off or cause any controversy whatsoever.

And it didn’t piss me off – when I watched this episode of Dude Perfect, it washed over me like a conversation at a barbecue I’m not really listening to because I dislike the people talking. Often, it’ll be a couple who don’t actually like each other, but remain sexually attracted so they don’t break up, and hence use any public gathering as an opportunity for an ad hoc couples therapy session that goes nowhere.

That’s the closest I can come to describing the reaction I had to Dude Perfect, Aircraft Carrier Bucket List. Kind of vapid and irritating, but not so much I can actually get angry because it’s so banal and tasteless.

In short, these guys go and fool around on an aircraft carrier and the result was a 20 minute youtube show that is neither edifying nor provocative, in either a good or bad way. As the Navy’s reports describe:

DUDE PERFECT (YOUTUBE) – Social Media influencers with the 15th largest YouTube channel, working in collaboration with Paramount for the marketing of TGM, the 5 15min episode will highlight our professional pilots and aircraft.

Jesus, the 15th largest youtube channel. I guess they don’t allow porn, so we have to keep things in perspective.

One of the entries in the Navy reports outlines the initial pitch from Dude Perfect:

Production looking to film the following:

  • Ride along with pilot
  • Obstacle course fly through with RC Plane
  • Landing RC Planes on/at designated location
  • Balloon Battle

It seems there’s a lot of remote controlled planes in this show, I am not sure why since they’re kind of a niche, retro hobby. Though, even in my small town there is a remote controlled boating club, so perhaps I’m underestimating the interest. It just strikes me as 1980s Radio Shack culture.

The Navy had a few problems with this – they were happy for the guys to go on board the ship and film for a couple of days as part of a Paramount-sponsored promotion for Top Gun: Maverick. Of course, they were so heavily invested in Top Gun that they could hardly turn this down – there are a bunch of documentaries and other Top Gun-themed productions they were working on around this time.

But the specific scenarios proved tricky, and after a conference call the concept for the episode was rewritten.

Awaiting revised treatment based on 14 Apr conference call between Lemoore Air Wing, Production Company and Paramount.

Obviously, with something like this there’s no script, only a treatment, so they had to negotiate over that. The Balloon Battle got shot down, there was no obstacle course for the remote controlled plane, though it does feature in the episode to some extent. In the end, the Dude Perfect producers couldn’t do this without the US Navy and didn’t really care what they included in the episode, since it’s more about the audience somehow feeling a connection with the insipid hosts.

Indeed, the popularity of youtubers and similar content is driven by social alienation, but that’s a whole other discussion.

Quick Media Breakdown: Dude Perfect Bucket List Aircraft Carrier

I don’t want to run through the entire episode, breaking it down piece by piece, but there are a few moments worth picking out. As I say, Dude Perfect is Jackass, but without anything painful. So, just a bunch of boring people doing not a lot and overreacting to it. Safe space Jackass.

The episode begins with a staged phonecall from Commander Ron Flanders from US Naval Air Forces, approving their trip aboard the USS Nimitz. How do we know this is staged? Well, for one thing the entire presenting crew are just sat around a table waiting, because they know the call is coming. For another, you don’t get a call from a Naval Commander, you get a call or an email from the Navy’s entertainment liaison office, most likely from the project officer.

The fact the entertainment liaison office were left out of the setup is quite deliberate – they don’t want you to know that this is a PR piece aimed at kids on youtube, hence staging the call. That the Navy went along with this, despite the clear violation of protocol, says everything about how two-faced they are when it comes to enforcing the rules.

Note also that the Commander says he has looked over their bucket list of activities, and that they’ll ‘try their best’ to accommodate the wishlist. That isn’t what happens, and isn’t what happened. Again, the Navy Commander is simply lying – he’d have to get approval for all this, he doesn’t make those decisions.

The wishlist is as follows: Catch a Fish, Fly a Remote Controlled Plane, Hit Golf Balls off the Deck, Have a Barbecue, Make a Trick Shot with a Basketball, Wakeboard behind the ship, Drive the Ship, Fly in a jet, Have a Hot Tub, Play Basketball on Deck, and Shoot Off a Jet.

They got to do most of this – though the hot tub is a bit lame, and clearly just something quickly patched together by the production crew. I’m a little surprised they let them fly a remote controlled plane, both taking off from and landing on the deck, but that’s in there.

The trick shot with the basketball is kinda funny, because he throws one in (not at the first attempt, I’m sure) from up on a walkway high above the hoop, and there’s about a hundred people on the other side of the hoop to try to stop the ball going off into the water if he misses.

The fishing is especially lame – they set up a bunch of fishing rods off the side of the ship and then leave the rods as they go and film the rest of the episode. Then, the whole bunch of them are sat around when they get an alert from the sailors monitoring the fishing rods. Because sailors on board an aircraft carrier apparently have so little to do that spending all day watching fishing lines for a youtube show is within their schedule. The group rush to the fishing rods and pull out a very fake looking fish.

Note, we do not see this fish on the barbecue, which confirms that it isn’t real because there’s no way you’d miss doing that. The shot of the fish that you caught grilling away on the deck of the ship is too perfect for Dude Perfect, so there you have it.

Hitting golf balls off the deck is curious, because this was in the script for The Final Countdown, but got removed by Don Baruch and the Navy. Around 20 years later there is the sequence with the American football at the start of Behind Enemy Lines, which was not something they would have done when Baruch was head of the office.

Also, note that the golf balls are apparently biodegradable, which is quite irrelevant given the fuel consumption and pollution created by an aircraft carrier. This is an absolutely textbook example of faux environmentalism in American entertainment, and the superficiality of most populist environmentalism. Which is, of course, why so little genuine progress is made on these issues – people want to think it’s about using biodegradable golf balls, while buying a whole new car the size of Montana to drive to the golf course.

Indeed, the only thing they weren’t allowed to do was wakeboard behind the ship – which would be stupid, dangerous and pointless, given the amount of churn you get behind an aircraft carrier, as well as how slowly they turn. The fact that they only appeared to reject one of the requests from this ensemble of blithering idiots makes the Navy look cool, but also authoritative and responsible. And gives an entirely false image of what life on board an aircraft carrier is actually like. Here’s a spoiler – noisy, hot, cramped and very regimented.

After their two day embark on the Nimitz the group are flown to a Naval Air Station to meet the pilots of the Blue Angels, the Navy’s flight demonstration squadron.

We learn a little about the squadron’s history, and their ‘death defying manoeuvres’. There is no mention of the fact that 26 Blue Angels pilots and 1 crew member have died since 1946. Also, note that they say the Navy asked them to fly, not the other way round. Another lie.

After they get flown around a bit, complete with Top Gun-style cockpit camera footage, the episode wraps up with a thank you to the Navy for being the ‘greatest navy in the world’. Remember to like and subscribe.

Why youtube Matters to the US Military

If all of this seems inane and boneheaded to you, that’s because it is. But when you’re trying to recruit the next generation of sailors, pilots, soldiers and so on, this sort of content is vital.

There is a generational difference between how kids today consume content and how they did 10 or 15 years ago. Conventional network TV is still something that younger people watch, but not in anything like the numbers they used to. In the 1990s the White House put anti-drug messaging into shows like Sabrina the Teenage Witch because that’s what the kids were watching back then.

But now they’re watching either Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, on Netflix (because everything is a reboot), or watching this gaggle of short planks messing about on the USS Nimitz on youtube.

It isn’t just Dude Perfect. Scanning through the Navy’s entertainment liaison office reports covering 2017 to 2021, other youtube-based productions include Could You Survive the Movies, with the documents saying:

Educational science program dedicated to exploring the magic and science of cinema. This episode based on the 1986 feature film Top Gun will celebrate the skill of Naval Aviation while educating the audience on the science of flight. Program features the Navy’s Flight Demonstration Squadron.

The reports also mention Blippi, with an entry saying:

Blippi is a toddler aged focused YouTube series that highlights the jobs people do, how the machines they use work, and the world around them. This episode is focused on the Blue Angels, including their pilots, maintenance teams, and the aircraft they fly and maintain.

They’re really getting their money’s worth out of the Blue Angels – who also featured in Top Gun: Maverick. So you see how at the same time that they’re participating in a soft reboot scam designed to appeal to 30 and 40 somethings who loved the original Top Gun, they’re also helping make stuff for teenagers, and even toddlers, as part of the same overall PR operation.

You really can’t get away from these bastards. No part of the ‘global entertainment environment’ is truly free from their influence. Even if not that many people sign up to the Navy because of this one episode, you know that in three years time someone will be trying to copy what Dude Perfect have done in the hope of gaining the same popularity, and they’ll be asking the Navy if they can go on an aircraft carrier.

This is how carefully-targeted pop culture like this acts as a force multiplier – not just the immediate recruitment and PR value in the minds of an audience they often struggle to reach, but the wider influence over pop culture in general. Sooner or later they’ll be a female equivalent of Dude Perfect and around the release of the third Captain Marvel film (that no one actually wants) they’ll be flying with the Blue Angels and meeting Brie Larson.