A quick survey of the developments in the year or so since federal immigration reform went down in flames reveals very little in the way of discord. The conservative base has agreed (mostly) to stop grumbling about nominee ‘Juan McCain’ in order to avoid sabotaging his reputation as one of a few Republicans still in national good standing, and only 6% of Americans see immigration as “the most important issue facing the country today.”
Under the surface of the national dialogue, however, the fire hasn’t stopped burning. Legislation ranging from resident ID cards to English-only ordinances and efforts to prosecute landlords has been passed in various states and municipalities, often causing head-on policy collisions. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arm of the Department of Homeland Security has enforced its powers to raid, detain, and deport to — and some would say beyond — their fullest extent, bringing down lawsuits from immigration advocates in its wake like so many Whack-a-Mole mallets.
But as the political trenches are drawn in local courtrooms and City Halls, the battle for public opinion in any given community — even the national community — has become a catch-22. Deprived of any symbol of the local insecurity faced by illegal immigrants that is as evocative as the border fence was of national security, advocates of immigration liberalization must call attention to the threats overzealous ICE enforcement poses to immigrants. Calling attention to the immigrants who are affected, however, would put them even more at risk of being targeted by overzealous ICE enforcement.
Enter American Apparel, a Los Angeles-based retailer known for gold leggings and vaguely pornographic ads, and an international, media-centric human rights organization called Breakthrough. Over the last few months, even as the threatened presence of federal agents has damaged attendance at conventional rallies and marches, the two groups have launched (separate) interactive consumer campaigns — and in the process captured the vanguard of the immigration-liberalization movement. The movement has shifted its gaze from the border to the city, and come in from the streets to both retail display and browser windows: Hundreds of American Apparel stores (as well as its website) showcase T-shirts urging spectators to “Legalize L.A.,” while Breakthrough uses Facebook ads to hawk its computer game set in “Anytown, U.S.A.” and called ICED (both a play on the agency name and an acronym for the chirpily empowering “I Can End Deportation”).
Pathetic ploys for youth support? Hardly. As products, Legalize LA and ICED are intelligently designed for the Internet Generation (call us “Millennials” only if you absolutely must): direct, relatively unpretentious ,and extremely inexpensive. (A Legalize LA shirt is $15, with the proceeds going to Los Angeles-based advocacy groups; Breakthrough has posted ICED for download at no charge.) The consumer messages are there, of course, but they reinforce the political ones. American Apparel’s typically provocative posturing challenges consumers to become “bad ass people,” as its employee blog says in advertising the shirts, as if they too were taking the fight to the L.A. streets. Meanwhile, the study guide and other aspects of Breakthrough’s packaging for ICED emphasize its suitability for the classroom, allowing procrastinators to download and play it without feeling guilty. The site recently claimed to have provided over 70,000 downloads in its first month, though this may be due to failed attempts resulting in multiple downloads (as happened to me).
But online, the campaigns extend beyond the products, with accompanying websites, fact sheets (an ICED study guide is available for classroom use), and blogs. Product-based public-awareness campaigns are nothing new to this generation; Legalize LA was predated by the (RED) campaign (model: buy clothing, fight AIDS), and ICED is only a slight variation in medium from Invisible Children (model: watch movie, help former child soldiers in Uganda). But in keeping with the relentless advance of Web 2.0, the new editions trump their predecessors on interactivity, casting consumers in particular roles in the movement the products encourage them to join.
It helps that their aim is educating consumers so they can “speak out” rather than getting them to change their minds. (Their angles and tactics differ slightly: ICED covers due-process issues facing legal as well as illegal immigrants, quizzing players on what they’ve learned before allowing them to advance; American Apparel provides information about the economic and cultural contributions undocumented immigrants make to the United States on the website, but not with store purchases.) After all, it’s not as if this generation, far more likely than its predecessors to tell pollsters that immigration strengthens the nation, is a tough sell on the humanitarian merits of the issue. Both websites throw a lot of facts at their viewers, but the takeaway message is the same: ICE’s actions “deny human rights” to immigrants, creating a situation one AA ad goes so far as to call “apartheid.”
For this generation, though, the difficulty is getting anyone to consider the website worth visiting, shirt worth buying, or game worth downloading to begin with. Every demographic consistently ranks immigration as far less important than issues such as Iraq and the economy, and local political issues lose much of their edge in the distanceless virtual world. But immigration — even at the local level — seems like an issue likely to catch hold with a generation raised in a world where interactivity and decentralization are the norm, borders are irrelevant, and identity is malleable. The genius of these campaigns lies in their ability to use these sympathies not only to inform the message, but also the medium.
Legalize LA and ICED nudge consumers to identify — literally — with their own immigrant neighbors. ICED players “inhabit” one of five characters, whose identities and immigration histories are “based on true case studies,” according to Breakthrough. (One character even has a blog on the site about the immigration-liberalization movement, although who actually maintains it is unclear.) Breakthrough executive director Mallika Dutt, who developed ICED in collaboration with advocacy groups and high-school students, explains on the site that games help people “to put themselves in the shoes of a character experiencing injustice.”
American Apparel, of course, uses a real shirt instead of virtual shoes; its employee-written blog announced that they were distributing Legalize LA shirts for global sale by saying that they had “tons left over” from May 1st’s march. While the claim is moderately implausible, the narrative gives the shirt the frisson of street protest and instant vintage value of being one step removed from the very people it calls to legalize. (This is doubly true if some AA workers are themselves employed illegally, an allegation ICE is currently auditing the company to investigate.)
The problem with these campaigns is that they fail to close the gap on the last step: There are precious few actual immigrants to be seen or first-person stories to be read on either site. (Given that the other ads in the gallery on American Apparel’s website feature acrobatics and partial nudity, it’s difficult to see the employee pictured in the “apartheid” ad as any less fantastic.) Furthermore, any customer who actually decides to take local action is out of luck: Neither site provides any information on getting involved beyond providing contact information for members of the Congressional leadership (an exceptionally pointless move given the paucity of federal legislation at present).
The efforts remain innovative and even exciting, but by providing interactivity without genuine interpersonal connection, American Apparel and Breakthrough just create two more spaces on the Internet. The inability to provide a bridge between the world of ICED and the world of ICE (so to speak) destroys the possibility that the depersonalized sympathy customers feel can turn into genuine empathy or local commitment — two things the spatially disconnected internet has yet to be able to produce. A few minutes on the Legalize LA website, or playing ICED, may be enough for any consumer to want to “speak out” in outrage; but for whom, to whom, and where?
–Dara Lind blogs at Iqra’i.
(Website image copyright Breakthrough.tv)
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire