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The government thinks ads can stem a tsunami of illegal immigration

Advertising won't stop them.
Advertising won't stop them.
Courtesy Bright Orange Advertising, by permission

Today, the Fourth of July, is a federal holiday, but your tax dollars are working. "Overwhelmed by a surge in illegal immigration," the Associated Press reported July 2," the U.S. government has launched a $1 million international media campaign warning families in Central America that it's best to stay at home."

What this million-dollar media budget is buying are radio and television announcements that will air about 6,500 times, plus 273 bus shelter posters, plus "hundreds" of billboards and road signs, all to run for 11 weeks in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico.

"We have to stem the flow," U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske said as he announced the "Dangers Awareness Campaign." Of course, with more than 52,000 unaccompanied illegally immigrating children alone having been detained since last October, and with Border Patrol, law enforcement and humanitarian aid facilities along the southern border strained to the breaking point, that "flow" is more like a tsunami.

Enter at your own risk

The campaign's objective is to stop the flow of people with a flow of words. "Families need to understand that the journey north has become much more treacherous and there are no 'permisos' for those crossing the border illegally,' as Kerlikowske put it.

One of the billboards, for example, shows a photo of a child's footprints running towards the horizon line in a desert, with a headline saying (in Spanish), "I thought it would be easy for my son to get papers in the USA...I was wrong."

This has both an executional and a strategic flaw.

The executional flaw is that, in order to be read while being driven past at highway speed, billboard headlines need to be limited to seven to ten words. This one's 18. In English. In Spanish, which takes about 40 percent more words than English to say the same thing, so the translated headline must be the billboard equivalent of War and Peace.

People hanging around bus shelters have more time to read, so a poster saying, “I thought it would be easy for my son to get his papers in the USA. That wasn’t true,” and signed “Our children are the future. Protect them” isn't that much of a problem.

But strategically, bus shelter posters, billboards and road signs will be seen mainly by people who already paid their $5,000 or $6,000 for bus tickets and coyote (people-smuggler) fees and are now headed up the road to el Norte – especially the ones from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras who are already far from home as they pass through Mexico.

That's locking the barn door after the horse is stolen.

The commercials, at least, have the virtue of reaching the target audience before they leave home, and, if this example is any guide, take the format of mini-telenovelas:

A television spot slated to air in Guatemala [to see it, click here and scroll down] shows a teenage boy preparing to leave home for the U.S. His mother pleads with him not to go. He confides to his uncle - already in the U.S. - in a letter that she's warning him about the dangers of the gangs on the train that immigrants ride through Mexico, the cartels that kidnap and the dayslong walk in the desert. Ultimately, he writes his uncle, "he who doesn't take a chance, doesn't win."

The next image is of the boy dead on the cracked desert floor. A voiceover says smugglers' claims that new arrivals will easily get papers are false. The television and radio spots all finish with a similar parting message: "They are our future. Protect them."

The Pottery Barn Rule

The "Danger Awareness Campaign" is part of the government's effort to fix something it's broken, skeptics say. According to the Washington Times:

The public relations campaign marks an admission by the Obama administration that the surge of children crossing the border is caused, at least in part, by U.S. immigration policy...

One key problem is that what the U.S. considers its punishment for illegal immigrant children from Central America — issuing them a Notice to Appear, or NTA, which puts them in court proceedings that last for years — is the exact same document illegal immigrants call a “permiso,” or free pass, because it allows them into the country — at least temporarily. [emphasis added]

The Obama administration is now moving hundreds of Border Patrol agents to the southwest, to plug unpatrolled gaps in the border and to process the bumper crop of illegal aliens already in custody. It's promised to add more judges to southwest courts so immigration claims – and maybe deportations – can be processed faster. And the Department of Homeland Security is supplementing overwhelmed southwestern military bases with 700 beds for illegal immigrant families.

That may accomplish more than advertising ever could.

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