Someone once told me that you can craft the best, most innovative public policy, but unless you can get people to listen, it won’t make any difference.
He had a good point. (Thanks, Sasha.) This semester I had an interesting experience in making my voice heard, on a small scale. So I thought I would share the story of how 63 emails led to articles in the Washington Post, San Jose Mercury News, Associated Press, BBC News, stories on the local broadcast news, and played a role in this week’s apology and product recall from adidas.
It started with an email from my cousin telling me about some sneakers adidas was about to release. I clicked on the link he’d emailed, and my screen was filled with a stereotypical caricature of an Asian person – slanted eyes, buckteeth, and bowl haircut. The image, by a San Francisco graffiti artist, was featured on a sneaker that was part of adidas’s Yellow Series. The sneaker had “Fong” written on its back heel.
My immediate reaction: Offensive. But I was busy studying for an econ midterm.
My cousin asked me what he could do to protest the image on the sneaker. A bit of background about him here: he’s a sneaker collector. I didn’t know people like this existed, but they do. They collect limited edition sneakers – shoes that are often designed by artists, issued in lots of a few thousand or less, and that cost about $200 or more.
I suggested he gather more information and compose an email outlining what upset him about the sneaker. Then I thought about how this reminded me of the Abercrombie & Fitch episode a few years ago. In 2002, the clothing chain started selling T-shirts with similar caricatures and sayings like “Wong Brothers Laundry Service – Two Wongs Can Make It White.”
I was a reporter then, and I covered the protests by Asian Americans and others outside the company’s San Francisco store. I remember calling Abercrombie, which sent me a copy of its apology statement, and told me it was pulling the line from its stores. I reported this in a story that ran on the wire and was picked up by newspapers.
Because I’ve been a reporter, I’ve never taken a stand. I’ve always been the one watching events unfold. I decided that this wasn’t a bad time to change that. But how?
I called Keith Kamisugi, one of the most well-connected, media-savvy people I know, for advice. I also called Jane Kim, an accomplished grassroots organizer who played a significant and effective role in the Abercrombie protests. They gave me some great advice that I think could be applied to other situations:
· Before launching any sort of protest, make sure the information is accurate. This builds credibility and, obviously, helps you avoid looking foolish.
· Talk to the parties who might be affected by your protest. In this case, that meant contacting adidas and calling the artist, Barry McGee, who helped create the sneaker. Get their perspective.
· Figure out what your goal is, and shape your actions accordingly. I had to think about this: Was my goal to get adidas to pull the sneakers? Start a boycott of the company? Apply public pressure? Make people aware of the issue? Educate them about the need to be vigilant of harmful stereotypes?
· Anticipate the unintended consequences. Keith pointed out that the upshot of protesting this sneaker would be to bring adidas more publicity, possibly helping it sell more sneakers.
Talking with him and Jane helped me clarify what I wanted to do. I decided I wanted to let people know about these offensive sneakers and to air the issue of how harmful stereotypes can be. I also wanted adidas – and other companies – to know they must be sensitive to the damage such stereotypes can cause, and I wanted to make them think more critically the next time they launched products.
One good way to do this, I figured, was through an email campaign. But not just an email campaign to my friends. Contact “influencers,” Jane said. So I put together a spreadsheet of names and email addresses at national and local organizations like the Asian American Justice Center, the Japanese Americans Citizens League, the Organization of Chinese Americans, and Chinese for Affirmative Action.
I also included media on the list, hoping they could spread the word to more people. I emailed a friend at the San Jose Mercury News, where I used to work; and reporters at AsianWeek; Hyphen Magazine; the Center for Asian American Media; journalist Jeff Yang; and the Asian American Journalists Association. I also emailed some bloggers who write about Asian American issues.
Emails from consumers were one way to bring pressure to bear on adidas. But it also needed to hear from people at a variety of levels. Keith suggested I identify Asian Americans on the company’s board and in its executive ranks, Asian American athletes it sponsored, and others it did business with.
Now that I had a list of names, I had to figure out what I wanted to say. I thought about this carefully, because I knew the email could be forwarded to other people, and potentially quoted in other forums.
I started by telling people about the sneaker, and providing links to images of it on adidas’s Web site. “Why should you care?” I wrote. “This image perpetuates negative stereotypes of Asians, and adidas shouldn’t be allowed to make money off of such a concept. Adidas needs to know that this is not a fashion statement – it’s an insult.”
I also tried to anticipate some of the criticism the email could generate. On bulletin boards and blogs for sneaker collectors, a lively debate about whether the sneaker was a piece of art or an offensive stereotype was taking place. In a nod to this dispute, I wrote, “There has been some discussion on blogs about whether this constitutes racism, or whether it is simply an artist’s response to racism. But we think it is, at the very least, a bad marketing decision on the part of adidas. And, taken out of context, it represents an outdated stereotype.”
I ended by telling people we were also attempting to contact Asian Americans who were affiliated professionally with adidas. Then I asked them to make their voices heard, and included a link to the company’s online contact form and a 1-800 customer service number. I encouraged them to forward the email to friends, and provided a sample template for comments to adidas.
I asked Keith and Helen Kim to read the email before I sent it. Proofreading was a good idea. But it didn’t prevent me from making other email blunders.
Things Not to Do When Trying to Launch an Email Campaign
· Do not write the email in one email client, or in Microsoft Word, and then try to cut and paste it into another email client. If you do the former, you will end up with links don’t work. If you do the latter, you will wind up with strange symbols in place of apostrophes and other punctuation marks.
· Take the time to make it look pretty. I figured out too late how to make the links function as hyperlinks that readers could click on.
· Another thing about email appearance: pay attention to font. In pasting from Word, somehow my font ended up appearing very large, as if some very nearsighted person had written the email.
· To avoid these mistakes, send the email to yourself first. Seems painfully obvious, but I neglected to do it.