Sometimes, a point can be made with simplicity so brutal it takes the breath away. As part of a week of action, from MLK weekend to Inauguration Day, Black Lives Matter is launching a web app "Mark Yourself Unsafe" which enables black people in America to post social media updates denoting themselves as unsafe.
The initiative is a sobering contrast to Facebook’s by now familiar mechanism, "Safety Check," which allows people in the vicinity of critical incidents, such as earthquakes or terror attacks, to let friends and family know they are safe and well. It is hard to think of a starker way than an unembellished declaration of being unsafe to encapsulate the precarious position of black people living in the USA today.
The initiative was created by nonprofit advocacy organization BLM’s recently appointed ad agency, J. Walter Thompson New York. The agency’s chief creative officer, Brent Choi, says that after coming up with the idea of an "unsafety check", the most interesting part of the creative process was how the team had to "evolve the original idea to make it relevant to the work and actions of Black Lives Matter".
The app’s landing page is headed, "Being Black in America" followed by "Unsafety Check", and invites users to log in with Facebook and/or Twitter. Making use of location data and friends lists, once activated, the app posts a message on the user’s profile, marking them as unsafe. Non-black people can use the app to mark themselves as supporters of black lives.
The launch comes just ahead of Inauguration Day and this is not a coincidence. Choi says, "The truth is black people have never been safe in America. They weren’t safe before November 8 and they would not have been safe if Hillary had been elected. However, there is a feeling, shared by many minorities, that under the new government they are even more unsafe. So, while nothing has changed, everything has changed."
Choi adds, "Mark Yourself Unsafe is simply another vehicle for Black Lives Matter’s message, one of many ways to support the movement and hopefully one that can convince more and new people to show their support; because it’s different." Celebrities and activists, including Talib Kweli and Janet Mock, have already shared the app on Twitter.
The new partnership between BLM and J. Walter Thompson comes after a difficult year for the agency group, during which it took a serious reputational knock from the (still on-going) lawsuit brought by the agency's chief communications officer Erin Johnson, which claims then-CEO Gustavo Martinez repeatedly made racist and sexist remarks. The fallout saw Martinez exit the agency and the case has, moreover, highlighted the ad industry’s inadequate record on diversity and equality.
The company’s pro bono work for BLM could be seen as something of a counter-balance to the issues it has been facing. Choi says supporting worthy causes is a "foundational part of J. Walter Thompson. "It’s part of how we give back to the community," he says. "We believe our employees are happier working at a company that has a social commitment. We also believe that communications and marketing services, with their ability to inspire, inform and influence behavior, can play a key role in tackling many of the challenges facing society. It’s always a big part of my commitment as a creative."
While this project undoubtedly makes an eloquent and compelling statement, BLM is also asking people to do more than just use social media to fight racism and urges them to "take additional action by joining local organizers in demanding justice in the streets."