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Bombs Away

How ads for drones and military payload delivery systems invaded our timelines

Most of the world celebrated when the Berlin Wall fell and nuclear holocaust ceased to feel like it was just around the corner. But for the arms industry, the end of the Cold War meant catastrophe, shrinking their market by more than 50 percent in the following years. Those companies that didn’t fold entirely attempted to restructure mid-fall by diversifying their product output while implementing huge layoffs. Survival became Darwinian: adapt or die.

Part of adapting meant changing the way arms manufacturers reached potential clients, since they could no longer rely on the United States or the USSR to serve as an all-in-one PR firm, sales team, and procurement officer as they did when Cold War proxies were buying weapons by the boatload. Instead, companies like Boeing began contracting advertising firms to help increase their existing market shares while penetrating new ones. Starting in the late 1970s, the ads they produced began appearing in military journals that were produced largely in the Western world and distributed in developing nations, where there was room for growth, a practice that only increased into the 1990s. The U.S. government also began to lend a helping hand: in 1996, the Pentagon provided almost $380 million in marketing assistance to U.S. weapons-exporting firms.

History was ending, and the future looked bleak—for arms dealers, anyway.

But black-and-white photographs of shoulder-to-air missile launchers and printed copy about the latest fighter jets only engendered so much consumer excitement. Besides, the majority of conflicts occurring in the 1990s were internal wars of self-determination, like those in Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, in which cash-strapped governments and rebel factions mostly made do with existing arsenals. This did not at all diminish their brutality. But nor did it make them primary markets for large scale weapons manufacturers.

As the world settled into its new, post–Cold War order, mergers, closures, and layoffs in the weapons industry accelerated. History was ending, and the future looked bleak—for arms dealers, anyway. Then, two essential paradigms shifted.

The first occurred with the September 11, 2001 attacks. The aftermath, of course, led to an exponential increase in arms sales not only to the United States and Russia, but also to secondary players, many of which are in the Middle East. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia steadily increased from $3 million in 2000 to $3.5 billion in 2018. Though a much smaller number, the United States increased its sales to Morocco from a total of $4 million in 2000 versus a 2018 total of $333 million. Independent studies produced by the Congressional Research Service and the Cato Institute report similar trends throughout the Middle Eastern region.

The second shift remains largely unexamined, unquantified, and unqualified. Yet it constitutes a sea change in the methods and strategies employed in advertising conventional weapons. Quite simply, the launch of Facebook in 2004 and the universe of social media that followed revolutionized the way the arms trade is able to target, reach, and appeal to potential buyers.

Despite this glaring omission in analyses from both academia and the mainstream news,  the importance of social media as a plank in the weapons industry’s marketing platform is evident from the prodigious and extensive output of nearly every major manufacturer across multiple platforms.  One need only tune into Lockheed Martin’s YouTube Channel for corroboration. One of the company’s most recent videos, published on September 16, typifies their marketing strategy on the platform. Backdropped by a blue sky, a low angle image of a Warrior Armored Fighting Vehicle—in other words, a British tank—is interrupted by the kind of pixelated distortion familiar to video games, suggesting a resetting, the introduction of something new, as well as danger ahead.

The camera snaps back to three tanks kicking up dust beneath their tracks while a title card identifies them as being equipped with the “Warrior Capability Sustainment Programme (WCSP)” that upgrades rather than replaces existing armored vehicles. A score fades in with a looped baseline and progressive harmony that simultaneously suggests urgency and hope as the tanks fill the screen with steel and firepower. A cannon fires into a virginal landscape to demonstrate the product’s “Enhanced Lethality.” There are slo-mo shots that look modeled after the juicer moments in action movies, when higher frame rates allow viewers to savor the destruction being wrought on screen. Borrowing from video games, Hollywood, and the daydreams of would-be generals, Lockheed’s WCSP promotional video accomplishes what any good advertisement sets out to do: it establishes its product as cutting edge and cost effective, absolutely necessary and certifiably sexy. This strategy and aesthetic is replicated across multiple videos including those for their Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), F-35 Fighter Jets, and fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles.

Northrop Grumman also has an active YouTube channel replete with high production value content, including a video for its OmegA Heavy Lift Rocket that looks more like a trailer for a patriotic space movie than an ad for a military payload delivery system. But none match the cinematic sophistication of Raytheon, with videos that seem to be taken right out of the Mission: Impossible franchise. A recent production for their Special Mission Aircraft, which “offers several modes of intelligence collection and analysis,” dispenses with the overwrought soundtrack featured by Northrop and the soon-to-be dated special effects in many of Lockheed’s videos. Instead, this short film, as well as many others on Raytheon’s channel, features clean visuals, highly legible text, and upbeat modular music; banners advertising the craft’s specs are punctuated by the telemetry sound effect that often accompanies urgent dispatches from headquarters in a spy film.

Published on a near-universally accessible platform, these slick videos are capable of reaching a global audience the moment the company hits upload. The nature of YouTube also makes them highly shareable, enabling interested viewers to easily pass them on to colleagues and friends. Compared with YouTube content produced by similarly sized companies in other industries, they’re also popular. Humana, which ranks slightly above Lockheed Martin on the Fortune 500, and Northwestern Mutual, which ranks just above Raytheon, generally only garner a few hundred views per video, while weapons manufacturers can expect to accumulate between 2,000 and 10,000 views per post and occasionally many more—one of Raytheon’s more popular videos, a demonstration of a laser weapons system, has garnered more than eight million views. Bombs, rockets, tanks, and spy satellites have a certain inherent dramatic allure: this is very much the point. War sells, and the arms industry has packaged it for maximum appeal in the internet age. 

Highly produced promotional videos are only one aspect of the arms industry’s social media presence. More personal and “approachable” content can be found on Facebook, where Boeing’s page recently highlighted the Blue Angels, the Navy’s demonstration squadron of fighter jet pilots. Since 1986, the Blue Angels have flown the Boeing F/A-18 Hornet; conveniently, then, the Angels serve not only as entertainment at patriotic airshows, but also as de facto, and rather attractive, spokespeople for the manufacturer of their aircrafts.

But Facebook seems to be most effective for these companies when integrated with industry trade expositions targeted toward government weapons procurement officers and agencies. General Dynamics Mission Systems ramped up their posting during the 2019 Advanced Naval Technology Exercise (ANTX), a multi-day demonstration of new technologies with Naval implications. Specifically, the company used Facebook to promote their Bluefin-9, an unmanned underwater vehicle. This video of a General Dynamic’s salesperson posted during the expo, serves as an infotisement that includes technological specifications as well as potential military applications; its length and content suggest it was intended to serve both as an enticement to attract potential buyers to General Dynamic’s expo booth as well as a resource for procurement officers when presenting their findings to superiors back in the office.

Likewise, the UK’s largest weapons manufacturer, the ironically acronymed BAE Systems, took to Facebook regularly during the 2019 Defence and Security Equipment International conference, making a concerted push for their Light Attack Aircraft System (LAAS), a plug-and-play technology suite designed to interface with a variety of military aircrafts. One infographic posted during the event sets an LAAS equipped plane against a mountainous landscape backlit by a sherbet orange sunrise. Encircling it are a veritable halo of graphics and descriptions detailing its laser-guided rockets, mission computers, missile-warning systems, along with other high-tech features. The advertisement makes an appeal to those in the market for an affordable option that doesn’t sacrifice lethality. As Dave Harrold, BAE’s senior director of business development commented in a National Defense Magazine interview during DSEI, LAAS “can be much more efficient and cost effective. Not everybody can afford an F-35.”

Finally, there is the most rapid, least formal social media platform: Twitter, where users go to get quick hits of dopamine or to prove their pithy yet insightful points IN ALL CAPS once and for ALL. Here, the arms industry’s major players take full advantage of the virtual conveyor belt of infotainment. Posting up to fifteen times a day, Raytheon is perhaps the most prolific tweeter among weapons manufacturers. Aggressive tweets about neutralizing hostile drone swarms and innovative guided missile systems are counterbalanced with those promulgating an inclusive corporate culture, to project a holistic brand image and appease consumers who prefer their deadly war machines built in a welcoming and diverse environment.

While none are as active as Raytheon, numerous other, smaller companies also use Twitter as a platform to promote their brand identity. United Aircraft Corporation, which is majority owned by the Russian Government, often employs the platform to highlight recent news items about its products. Their English language Twitter account shared one September 5 report from RT featuring the MiG-35 fighter jet that breezily informed viewers this model “is cheaper than other fighters, but its functionality and capabilities are more than enough to carry out  missions in local conflicts.” A reminder of Russia’s ongoing occupation in parts of Ukraine, the report made a rare if inadvertent pitch for the MiG-35’s affordability in an actually existing geopolitical conflict, rather than speaking in the deliberate generalities that most of these posts favor.

To put it succinctly, conventional weapons are presented on social media as if they were any other consumer product.

The American outpost of the multinational weapons manufacturer Leonardo recently took to Twitter with more festive content. They were celebrating their fiftieth Anniversary with an infographic extolling their many achievements, including “70,000 thermal weapons sights delivered” and “55,000 DVE systems provided for military combat vehicles.” When considered within the context of their usage, these “accomplishments” assume more of a morbid peal than a joyous ring. But no matter! Their Twitter feed charged on with a cheery post spotlighting the Canada Army Run, a charity event showing appreciation for the country’s armed forces. Using a much lighter touch than United Aircraft Corporation’s Twitter strategy, Leonardo’s posts are similarly constructed to project a cohesive brand identity, albeit one more focused on “preserving peace” than subjugating one’s enemy. Of course, when it comes to selling conventional weapons on a global scale, these are in effect the same thing.

It’s worth noting the eerie juxtapositions the arms industry’s social media strategy creates in the feeds of its followers (or those who find its content in the crosshairs of their algorithm for whatever reason). Expecting my first child while writing this article, my personal YouTube suggestions page has been populated equally by newborn care videos and promos for predator drones, missile launchers, and spy satellites. Likewise, it’s easy to imagine those who have liked Raytheon on Facebook finding their recent post defining the difference between sub, super, and hypersonic missiles sandwiched between a photograph of a friend on vacation and a clip of sparring Chihuahua puppies. Followers of Lockheed Martin on Twitter might scroll past a Marie Kondo cat meme and a droll observation by a coworker about the permanently jammed printer before arriving at a tweet about advancements in directed energy weapons technology.

To put it succinctly, conventional weapons are presented on social media as if they were any other consumer product. The result is an uncanny collage alternatively composed of banal, benign, and ultraviolet content that visually analogizes advertisements for tanks, fighter jets, and laser-guided bombs with those for cars, travel deals, and cleaning products. This leveling was warned of by the authors of a 1980 study on arms advertising—“If there is any use value of weapons at all it is the destruction of human life,” they wrote, “therefore, a line should be drawn between arms advertisements and all other forms of sales promotion”—and it has only become more pronounced in the intervening decades. It’s hard to know what its ultimate effect will be, but if nothing else, it creates a virtual reality in which ever more lethal weapons are accepted and a state of perpetual war is taken as a given. And, as is increasingly the case, what is true on social media transposes itself onto the real world, where the sale of conventional weapons is still steadily on the rise.