Oh, Mary

Showing, Not Telling, the Hideous Truth

July 29, 2019
Maria Robinson

Unless you live under a rock, you are aware of the highly disturbing stories emanating from America’s southern border.

In the past few months, we’ve seen the tragic photo of a Salvadoran father and his 23-month-old daughter who died trying to seek a life without violence and crushing poverty. We witnessed the squalid conditions in government-run facilities described as full-on concentration camps by the person who literally wrote the book on them. But we really don’t need an expert. We already know the hideous truth. The situation is dire. People are dying.

Full disclosure, I almost didn’t write this post because this issue makes me feel so distraught that I am literally shaking as I write this. These are mi gente. The young children in cages look like my girl. She is two, and when I look at her small brown hands, I can almost imagine them gripping a chain-link fence from the inside as she cries in vain to be held in my arms. It guts me.

Because the horror of this situation is so extreme, the urgency and anguish are difficult to capture in words. Just talking about how detained children are crying doesn’t convey the desperation of the situation. Crying is an inadequate word. When unwashed toddlers wail for their parents, not comprehending why they have been abandoned in a filthy fluorescent-lighted prison it’s more than tears. It has to be expressed another way.

Enter cause marketing.

News outlets and non-profits have had to get creative about how to fully communicate what is happening at the border to media consumers who are already jaded from the constant onslaught of scandals, human rights abuses, and political posturing. In order to mobilize outrage (and hopefully change) in 2019, marketing tactics have to have teeth. Two of the pieces that have gotten traction recently exemplify how experiential storytelling, even of the most horrific situations, can bring the point home.

The NYT Video Op-Ed

In this opinion video, well-fed, clean kids read testimonies from the children detained in Customs and Border Protection facilities. Their healthy appearances quickly provide a distressing foil to the stories they read of being afraid to ask for more food, caring for smaller children and going hungry to feed them, and sleeping on the concrete floor. Their little voices and wide eyes looking at the camera implore the viewer. What if this happened to me? What if this happened to your child? Would you care then?

#NoKidsInCages Pop-Up Installations

In June, twenty-four installations were commissioned by the non-profit organization RAICES to draw attention to the issue. The installations were placed in strategic public locations around New York City, depicting a child-sized mannequin covered in a mylar blanket, enclosed in a cage. They were accompanied by audio of actual detained children sobbing and calling out to their parents. The combined effect of the optics and audio of the piece was devastating through video and must have been that much more so in person. It brought the experience of the camps in a raw and visceral way to passersby who may have scrolled past the story earlier that day. They were forced to face the humanity of the children who have had that stripped away from them by statistics and othering speech.

Although mobilization and protests against the human rights abuses at the border continue, cause marketers have their work cut out for them against the enormity of this issue. To be honest, I don’t have a snappy conclusion to sum it all up. I am sad and tired. Yet, I hold out hope. I hope that there is fight still left in good people of this country. There is still fight left in me.

If you want to donate time or funds to help migrants at the border, check out these sources.