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You’ve Been Watching Army Propaganda This Entire Time

How an old MTV reality show opened my eyes about the military's iron grip on our culture.

A photo illustration of the cast of MTV's The Challenge: The Island lifting the U.S. Army logo star on a beach, under a plane dropping a U.S. Army "air drop" supply crate
Screenshots via The Challenge/CBS; Image via the U.S. Army; Remix by Samantha Grasso

We all have our favorite “grownup” TV shows we remember watching as kids, feeling extremely Cool and Adult to be privy to the kind of content clearly marketed to people at least a decade older than us. For me, those shows included America’s Next Top Model and The Surreal Life, and other marathoned series played on MTV and VH1 during the summer, when my parents were at work and I had nothing better to do. For my boyfriend, those shows were The Real World and its competition show spin-off The Challenge

Which is how, fully leaned into the pandemic quarantine earlier this year, my boyfriend and I ended up marathoning nearly 30 seasons of The Challenge.

In earlier seasons of The Challenge, cast members from the Real World and its companion show Road Rules would return to live together and fight one another in various mental and physical competitions, slowly whittling down the pool of contestants until the “final” challenge. In recent years, The Challenge cast has included reality alums from shows like Are You the One?, Bad Girls Club, and even The Bachelorette.

The winners of the finals would go home with a monetary prize anywhere from tens of thousands of dollars, to the highest team prize of $1 million awarded in season 32, Final Reckoning

Like America’s Next Top Model, or The Bachelor, or Keeping Up With the Kardashians, The Challenge is “art” that imitates life. It reflects to its audience which ideas and behavior their world generally tolerates, or punishes, or encourages, or values. I’d be reminded of that when I’d watch scenes of unfettered racism and bullying and harassment, and behavior that pissed me off so much that I had to skip an entire season. 

Everything you would expect to happen on a reality TV show happens on this show. Contestants get drunk and fight and have sex and wear Blackface. In an early era of the show, male contestants objectively tried to eliminate female cast members when they could, so as to “trim the fat.” Some have even been named, along with MTV and the company that produces The Challenge, in a settled lawsuit alleging sexual assault of a female cast member in 2009.

Other cast members have openly talked about the harassment and bullying they and other contestants received on the show. After George Floyd’s death earlier this year, MTV purged cast members from its shows as a reckoning over racism, including The Challenge, though some big stars were hypocritically spared.

The basics of capitalism are also never far from The Challenge. In many seasons, winners of daily challenges would be given branded prizes from one of the show’s tens of sponsors, like sports equipment and speaker systems. The sponsorships were forced, sure — any time the show’s host, pro BMX rider TJ Lavin, “texted” The Challenge house, the reader of the text would plug the model of T-Mobile cell phone they were reading from. But for the most part they were innocuous, #TBT-esque blasts from the past, like branding from Zune and Dell. 

None of these sponsored prizes or challenges really caught my attention until the show started being very conspicuously sponsored by the U.S. Army. The Army spon was just as inorganic as everything else, if not more — the host, Lavin, read off a few scripted lines during each mention, with the U.S. Army logo often explicitly shown. 

First there was the “Army Strong final challenge” from season 15, The Gauntlet III. The show didn’t credit the U.S. Army in its closing sponsorship credits (I’ve reached out to Viacom, which owns MTV, and the Army to ask why that is), but Lavin clearly attributed the final challenge to the military, telling contestants, “In order to win today’s challenge you’re gonna need loyalty, integrity, and personal confidence. These are some of the core values the Army prides itself on.” According to the Real World blog, The Gauntlet III, which aired between January and March 2008, was interspersed with an “Army Strong” campaign, which “promoted a ‘no man left behind’ mission.” (This slogan wound up serving a plot purpose after a team was disqualified because—you guessed it—”somebody got left behind.”)

The U.S. Army Army Strong logo spray painted onto a crate in MTV's The Challenge: The IslandCredit: Screenshot via The Challenge/CBS; Remix by Samantha Grasso
The U.S. Army Army Strong logo spray painted onto a crate in MTV’s The Challenge: The Island
The cast of MTV's The Challenge: The Island looking at a cell phone from a U.S. Army "air drop" supply crateCredit: Screenshot via The Challenge/CBS; Remix by Samantha Grasso
The cast of MTV’s The Challenge: The Island looking at a cell phone from a U.S. Army “air drop” supply crate

Then there was the entirety of season 16, The Island, where the U.S. Army delivered “air drops” on every episode, dropping an Army-branded wooden crate of food rations and boat pieces to the cast members living on a beach shelter off the coast of Panama. Contestants used the boat pieces to assemble a boat throughout the season, which they used to paddle to a nearby island to collect $300,000 in gold. The A.V. Club even wrote about it in September 2008 as the show aired, with the headline “Kid Rock, MTV Will Make You Want To Join The Military.” Lavin spoke about the air drops in the first episode, saying, “Now we all know that this challenge is very intense. it is not only going to take dedication, but also physical and emotional strength to make it through this. These core Army characteristics are definitely going to be put to the test.”

And then there was another daily challenge, from season 17, Duel II, called “Dangle Duo.” In pairs, teams of two had to climb up a 100-foot ladder suspended over the Kowhai River in New Zealand, and once at the top, raise a U.S. Army logo flag to the top of the ladder. “This challenge is gonna take teamwork, trust, and personal courage, all of which can be traced back to the same core values of which the U.S. Army prides itself,” Lavin said of the event. There are probably many other instances of the U.S. Army advertised throughout the series (we do have some semblance of a life so we didn’t get around to all 35 seasons) but these were the instances that caught my attention.

At first I found these blips of military propaganda interesting and strange, mostly because the show isn’t exactly the pinnacle of “Army values,” or, whatever values the U.S. military likes to pretend its enlistees possess and that it upholds as an institution in the U.S. and in the countries it occupies. Some of the cast members of these shows are pieces of shit, and as I mentioned above, unfairly treat other cast members like pieces of shit. They get drunk and yell obscenities at each other and do whatever they can in their power to push each other to their breaking points. Though if we’re thinking literally, outside of the facade of the Army and all branches of the U.S. military being “respectable” and made up of “good” people, the behavior shown on The Challenge is completely emblematic of the kind of sexy, fast and loose life a recruiter would want people to think they could have if they were to join.

But then I thought about when these episodes were first broadcast. Between retro clothes and flip phones operating on minutes and other outdated references, I was looking at an active Army recruitment strategy for the “War on Terror.” 

The Army had paid MTV to get its message out in front of young people after the Iraq war was already unpopular, and during the slow decline of public support for the war in Afghanistan. Months before these seasons began to air, Army recruiters said publicly that recruitment was getting “tougher,” and that they had to lower their standards and use bonuses to meet their 2007 recruitment goals. I felt gross realizing that I was watching a lackadaisical recruitment campaign that might have convinced some MTV viewers to look into joining the military, or visit their local recruiters, or even enlist.  

I think it would be easy to look at The Challenge and the U.S. Army slapping on a few logos across the show’s tools, and rationalizing it as a low-stakes recruiting investment—which it surely was. But the fact that such a niche show received sponsorship funds from the U.S. Army during a time when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were wearing down the American public speaks to just how pervasive and widespread the military’s influence and expansion of empire really are. It’s also an entry point for understanding how saturated our entertainment industry is with U.S. military influence. Even a show as inconsequential as The Challenge gets an entire season of Army sponsorship for “air dropped” food rations, to help facilitate a game show. 

The military spends lots and lots of money on advertising—the Army spent $400 million annually on ads in recent years—and the data suggests that this investment often pays off. The Army Times reported in February of this year that the Army’s latest ad campaigns—which make extensive use of data-rich targeting to Gen. Z—have been so successful that the service wants to shift more resources towards marketing and away from other recruitment efforts like offering people bonuses to sign up.

A report on the cost-effectiveness of military advertising published in 2009 by the Rand Corporation—which has been involved in Army recruitment campaigns for decades—also hypothesized about the ways that advertising would lead to recruitment:

… Advertising may have both threshold and saturation effects. That is, an advertisement has to be experienced several times before it has an effect. On the other hand, a message, after it has been heard several times, may no longer have a marginal impact. In addition, advertising may have dynamic effects as well as interactions. For example, individuals do not immediately enter the Army upon hearing an ad. Indeed, there may be an extended period before an action stimulated by an ad will be observed. Some of the interactions could be due to complementarities between media. For example, a television spot may induce a person to seek additional information, stimulating reading of magazine ads or Web site visits.

Reading this reminded me of the continual mentions of the Army “air drops” in every episode of The Island season, along with MTV’s heavy reminders of behind-the-scenes footage and webisodes on its early-internet era website. Advertising the Army on The Challenge might not have directly led to enlistment, but it was a tool that would, according to this report, at least get viewers thinking about the Army, and maybe, eventually, consider what their life would be like if they were to enlist.

The military also has enjoyed an extremely close relationship with Hollywood for as long as Hollywood has existed. There’s actually an entire process of going about getting this kind of financial or material support from the military and other U.S. governmental entities (the CIA has an entire message for filmmakers online), and it might be a really fascinating process if it wasn’t rooted in imperialism and had such serious, inhumane, deadly consequences.

The podcast Citations Needed, hosted by Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson, recently delved into the entertainment industry’s relationship with the U.S. military on a three-part series about Anti-Muslim racism in Hollywood, and how the film industry has relied upon the military and the CIA for more than a century to produce and authenticate these projects. Matthew Alford, a researcher and a guest on the podcast, found that more than 800 feature films received Defense Department funding between 1911 and 2017, and that since its inception, the CIA has been involved in at least 60 film and TV productions.

One film franchise that Shirazi and Johnson zero in on is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has a longstanding relationship with the military. In exchange for military access, including real military equipment in the various Marvel films, the Pentagon is able to exert control over many details of the production, often including the script. These sponsorships are important, because they give filmmakers the “authenticity” they want while saving millions in CGI costs, establish a relationship with the military for when they’ll eventually want to use their influence again, and provide the Pentagon with an international platform to hawk their product.

Marvel is hardly alone in cutting these sorts of deals. The Pentagon is very open about its relationships in Hollywood, and the terms upon which they exist. A 2018 blog post on the Department of Defense website goes into detail about what the military asks of its Hollywood partners: “Production agreements require the DoD to be able to review a rough cut of a film, so officials can decide if there are areas that need to be addressed before a film is released.” The post also says that the majority of the work the Pentagon does in Hollywood is with unscripted shows: “[T]here are also a lot of unscripted projects that require DoD attention, such as documentaries on the History and Discovery channels; game shows like ‘Jeopardy’ and ‘The Price is Right’ that often have military-themed episodes; and talk shows like Ellen, Steve Harvey and Conan.” Presumably, The Challenge fell into this category.

It’s unclear how much control the U.S. Army had over The Challenge, and I reached out to Viacom and the Army to ask. However, I would safely bet that the Army wrote or at least signed off on all of the language around the “core values” that the Army “prides itself” in. 

Even supposedly unvarnished looks at military life usually come with strings attached.  A Los Angeles Times article from April 2008 detailed a 10-hour PBS docuseries called Carrier being broadcast that month, which followed 15 Navy service members living aboard an aircraft carrier for six months in 2005, and showed service members drunk, having sex, making racist comments, and contemplating the morality of the war. But even though the Navy didn’t pay for the production (Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions did, actually) the Navy still had editorial control over the final project, and removed two scenes for reasons of “national security.” 

And while the Navy claimed that the documentary didn’t “fully represent the discipline, values and mission of the U.S. Navy” (again, lol) it said the reality-TV like program provided “a sense of authenticity and credibility” and “will give potential recruits and those who influence them a glimpse of what life is really like in the Navy.” Carrier, a more honest portrait of Navy life compared to the commercials, was a military recruiting tactic all the same.

Another LA Times piece, this time from two months into George W. Bush’s first term, seems to illustrate the Army’s interest in involving more reality TV-like aspects into their recruitment tools, as a means to get “personal” with young people. 

It’s clear that running programs and ads specifically targeting young reality TV audiences became a strategy on its own. Lyle Rubin, a Marine Corps veteran, writer and speaker with counter-recruitment group We Are Not Your Soldiers, told me that the Army’s use of MTV obstacle courses as an advertising opportunity reminded him of a show that aired about four years after those Challenge seasons, in 2012, called Stars Earn Stripes

The show was broadcast on NBC for four episodes, and produced by Dick Wolf, Survivor producer Mark Burnett and Fear Factor producer David Hurwitz (whose Twitter credits also include a Cards Against Humanity-type game called “Black Card Revoked”……). It paired military and law enforcement personnel (including American Sniper author Chris Kyle, who was killed the following year) with famous people such as Terry Crews, Dean Cain, Nick Lachey, and Todd Palin. The famous person would be trained by their assigned military person in specialty missions based off of U.S. military training exercises, and winners earned money toward their choice of military-related charity.

The month it aired, a long list of Nobel Peace Laureates, including Desmond Tutu, signed a letter calling for the end of the program, writing that Stars Earn Stripes “pays homage to no one anywhere and continues and expands on an inglorious tradition of glorifying war and armed violence. Real war is down in the dirt deadly. People—military and civilians—die in ways that are anything but entertaining.” The letter was in support of a protest headed by several anti-war veterans groups, staged outside of NBC’s Rockefeller Center headquarters on the day of the series’ premiere. The series wasn’t renewed for a second season (though its biggest critique from the mainstream was that it was boring).

Rubin was in the Marine Corps between 2006 and 2011, eventually becoming a lieutenant in Afghanistan, and began his anti-militarism work around 2012. He said that around the time he joined the military, he recalled hearing about recruiters having a hard time meeting their quotas as a result of the failure of the Iraq War. It’s likely the U.S. Army was putting out “tentacles” with advertising and sponsorship where they could, he said — as they continue to do to this day. 

For example, some branches of the military are currently using the streaming platform Twitch as a recruitment tool, drawing large audiences of young people with live gaming. In July, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposed an amendment to a House Appropriations bill to bar the military from using funds toward Twitch and other esports platforms, but it failed

“It’s just a big machine and it requires a whole lot of recruitment,” Rubin said. “They’re always trying to bring people in.”

If the machine needs to be fed, then using The Challenge or MTV programming or any other avenue of getting the Army’s message in front of young eyeballs, as if throwing strategies to the wall and seeing what sticks, makes sense. Ultimately, the Army needed a vehicle for its message, and The Challenge was available. It’s another indication of how deeply indoctrinated our media is within pro-military propagandist interests, and how far away we are from watching or reading anything different. 

A U.S. Army Army Strong flag on MTV's The Challenge: Duel IICredit: Screenshot via The Challenge/CBS; Remix by Samantha Grasso
A U.S. Army Army Strong flag on MTV’s The Challenge: Duel II
Evan and Diem of MTV's The Challenge: Duel II lifting a U.S. Army Strong flag at the end of the Dangle Duo challengeCredit: Screenshot via The Challenge/CBS; Remix by Samantha Grasso
Evan and Diem of MTV’s The Challenge: Duel II lifting a U.S. Army Strong flag at the end of the Dangle Duo challenge

There isn’t even really a “flip side” to this propaganda, Rubin said. While shows like The Challenge and Stars Earn Stripes promote pro-war narratives, sporting events like football games act as a “propaganda extravaganza” valorizing the U.S. military, and the film industry actively seeks creative restriction from the U.S. military and CIA, media rooted in anti-war narratives aren’t doing any better. 

For example, in the memoir Jarhead, author Anthony Swofford recounted watching anti-war movies with his fellow Marines in order to get excited about going into war. And yet, Rubin says, the film Jarhead received the same kind of treatment as those anti-war moves used to promote the war—it became an anti-war film that makes no “real indictment, [or] sense of shame or guilt” about war and instead comes across romanticized “humanistic parable about the awfulness of war.” Rubin says the same things about authors of best-selling, liberal novels that critique the War on Terror, such as Phil Klay, the author of Redeployment and Missionaries.

“You won’t hear any of these authors, or any of the critics that love these books and these movies, talk about U.S. empire, or talking about the actual global power relations in which these acts of violence take place. You won’t hear them talking about the United States as the most frequent and shameless military aggressor around the world, or it’s not an accident that the same military power also owns the overwhelming majority of major economic institutions around the world, so there’s no real political analysis,” Rubin said. 

“There’s no real discrete treatment like the actual causes of all this violence,” he continued. “Humanity is to be blamed as a whole, as opposed to the American Empire, or American violence, which would force a lot of conversations that I think a lot of people don’t want to have.” 

So much of this media, to various extents, tells us that war is fine and good, and even fun!, and that there is a justification to the violence and death done to civilians by our military in countries that we’ve invaded and will continue to invade, as well as the violence we continue to put Americans through as a cost of war, from when they enlist, to well after they’re deployed and deserted after they’re returned. And even when it tells us war is bad, it doesn’t make explicit these harms. Even if it doesn’t get people to join the military, it’s all a distraction from any critical analysis about the military-industrial complex.

“No matter how you cut it, the whole point of all this propaganda is to ensure that Americans never start asking inconvenient questions, like, ‘Why is this war taking place? Who is behind this kind of war? Who’s profiting from this war? Why when Russia invades another country and occupies it, that’s considered an act of aggression or a crime against humanity, and then when we do the same thing it’s either celebrated as this bold defense of the free world, or the individual acts within it are celebrated as … heroic, or it’s seen as this ‘regrettable’ aspect of human nature?” Rubin said. “It basically just ensures that Americans are never asking the questions that really should be asked, or demanding the politics that really should be demanded.”