When I was asked to participate in The Drum’s Do It Day, I was beyond thrilled. Aside from the day-off-from-work perk, the opportunity to do social activism is a huge win. And when I was assigned to work on Amnesty International, it almost felt like kismet.
The challenge Amnesty posed on Plan It Day was to change the perception of refugees in the US. Both the UK and US received this challenge, but with an interesting difference. In the UK, refugees are perceived as an economic burden, a perception that is relatively easy to combat, since it is a rational argument—as opposed to an emotional one—and there are concrete facts available to rebut this misconception. In the US, however, the general perception is fear, grounded in ignorance and lack of exposure to anything more than mass-media consumption.
As a first generation Arab-American who’s had first-hand exposure to the struggles of refugees and immigrants, this cause was close to my heart and, as such, I brought a lot of experience and insight to the table when brainstorming. But I wasn’t alone. One of my team members was a Turkish immigrant, and another was an American military brat who spent most of his childhood in Saudi Arabia. I was scratching my head, thinking, “They did this on purpose.”
So, with a dream team like that, you would think we’d be bleeding with ideas. Nay! We found ourselves stalled in political fermentation, talking in circles for hours. We knew too much. We knew what wasn’t working, and our own frustrations, seeing “empathy porn” on our social media feeds that amount to nothing, knowing all the facts and figures that fall on deaf ears, and feeling that there is just no way to really connect. We talked about how we, ourselves, have difficulty empathizing with our target audience, not understanding how certain people can support certain things, and what they see. And as we brainstormed, we thought a lot about Big Data. We thought about how little cookies dropping crumbs all over the Internet make it impossible to ever have a truly objective worldview. Your social media feed tells you what you want to hear, because it is curated with people and posts that agree with your viewpoints. Even Google gives you search listings based on predictive technology, on what it thinks you want. We worried that anything we put out into the digital stratosphere would never reach the people we want it to reach. So all our thoughts involved going out into the streets, offline, and face to face with Middle America; ideas that we knew needed time and money, and were too big for Do It Day.
We hit an impasse, and were starting to panic. Time was almost up and we didn’t have a single idea to pitch. It was truly the hardest thing I’d ever done professionally—the irony of which was not lost on me. We ultimately focused everything we knew and put together an idea that was really exciting for both us and the client, but admittedly still far-fetched to execute. So we didn’t win.
Weeks later, as I thought about Do It Day coming up, when I would support the other team in executing their idea, it hit me. Data is not the enemy. Maybe I don’t know how to reach Middle America, but there are experts that do. The same stale cookies that frustrated us can be used to our advantage, and no matter what message we want to send, we can make sure that the people who need to hear it, will.
Sam Inshassi is a copywriter at RAPP NY