MILWAUKEE, Wis. – Most military recruiters pulled out all of the stops to attract attendees at what promoters tout as the “World’s Largest Music Festival,” displaying advanced computer simulations of combat in an ambushed convoy and flying an F-16, but the larger crowds surrounded Marine Corps recruiters and their two $700 iron pull-up bars.
The 41st annual Summerfest ran from June 26 to July 6, hosted more than 900,000 people and featured many prominent artists, including Stevie Wonder, John Mellencamp and Alicia Keys.
Marines challenged about 2,000 participants to prove their physical prowess in pull-ups and the flexed-arm hang, common exercises for male and female Marines respectively. Crowds congregated around the Marine display, cheering on willing participants throughout the 11-day festival and earning recruiters a contract, as well as 380 age/education qualified leads, 95 percent of which were from within 9th Marine Corps District’s borders. Another 270 “Coming of Age” leads provided recruiters with a head start down the road to boot.
“Whatever the other services’ recruiters come up with – push-ups, football throws, bean bag tosses, video games – it doesn’t matter,” said Master Gunnery Sgt. John Purcell, recruiter instructor for Recruiting Station Milwaukee, who has worked similar recruiting events with the station since 1992. “We always have more interest generated from that pull-up bar than anything else.”
Although the allure of the pull-up bar still mystifies many Marines, Purcell developed a theory over 15 years of recruiting about why the simple device still brings in the big crowds.
“The Marine Corps has a pretty prestigious reputation,” Purcell said. “A lot of individuals want to see if they have what it takes. Also, they want to impress their girlfriends; impress their friends; impress their parents. The old men want to show their wives they still have it. They want to prove it to themselves and to other people as well.”
Participants used words like “manliness,” “testosterone” and “competition” to explain their interest in the event.
“The people like competition and they like challenges,” explained Cleveland Jones, a 47-year-old participant who pumped out 29 pull-ups. “It motivates you and it promotes health and fitness.”
The Marines set-up appeared on the local NBC affiliate’s newscasts three times throughout the event, and the station’s chief meteorologist even used the pull-up challenge as a back drop for his afternoon weather broadcast one day.
“We don’t just come out and do standard reporting,” Malan said. “We like to do interactive people things. And I see these guys doing interactive stuff all the time.”
The event organizers found the Marines to be a beneficial addition as well. Representatives of the non-profit group that organizes Summerfest, Milwaukee World Festival Inc., support the Marines every year in their marketing effort for the entertainment value, as well as the principles promoted by the pull-up challenge.
“It brings additional value to Summerfest by providing a fun, interactive activity for our patrons,” said John Boler, vice president of sales and marketing for Milwaukee World Festival, Inc. “But it’s not only about physical ability, (it’s also) about reaching deep down inside and achieving all you can achieve.”
With the large gatherings and the media attention generated by the pull-up challenge, Purcell continues to be surprised by the popularity of such a simple and inexpensive idea.
“The fact that the Marine Corps pull up bar – with all the technology, with all the innovative ideas, and money that … the other services have to throw at these events – it’s ironic that a simple pull up bar with some tape on it draws a crowd of sometimes hundreds of people,” Purcell said.