Monday, May 17, 2010

Brand new old Arizona

If this had happened on the streets outside the Staples Center, they’d have called it a drive-by. Did you see it tonight? I’m referring to Game 1 of the NBA Western Conference Finals, which the Los Angeles Lakers won, defeating the Phoenix Suns by the score of 128-107. The Suns were embarrassed. Humiliated. P’wned. Dismissed. As sound a drubbing as this was in the world of basketball, recent events outside the world of sports gave the game an extra resonance.

This wasn’t just a game between the Lakers and the Suns; this was a proxy battle between California and Arizona. Take a wild guess as to why.

On May 12, the Los Angeles City Council voted to boycott the Arizona Territory in business dealings, a direct result of Arizona’s new and fiercely contested anti-immigration law. The city council has moved the boycott measure on to L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has indicated his intention of signing it. CBS News reported Thursday that Los Angeles is also reportedly exploring whether or not more than $50 million in existing contracts with the Territory can be legally broken.

CBS reported that Arizona’s Office of Tourism estimated that the territory stands to lose about $90 million in trade, convention and related business.

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In the wake of the criticism and the building blowback on the bottom line, territorial Gov. Jan Brewer has undertaken an effort meant to fix the mess Arizona’s in. Late last week, it was announced that the Territory would begin a campaign to rebrand itself, to take the initiative of changing people’s expectations of what Arizona’s really like. With a new PR strategy and (almost certainly) a new Web presence, Arizona is trying to change the game.

"It's up to us to get the truth out there. This is impacting Arizona's face to the nation," Brewer said on Thursday. The governor agreed to transfer $250,000 from the Arizona Department of Commerce to the Arizona Office of Tourism, AZCentral reported on Friday.

"The end goal is to reassert that we are a safe, inviting, diverse and culturally aware community," said Steve Moore, the president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"We were surprised by (the boycotts)," Debbie Johnson, CEO of the Arizona Tourism Alliance and the Arizona Hotel and Lodging Association, told in a statement reflecting naivete as much as surprise. "We didn't think it was going to be a tourism issue. This is a political issue."

The bigger problem for Arizona, though, isn’t one of branding. Any first-year marketing student knows that repositioning the brand is likely to be a waste of time if the public has a problem with what’s inside the can. Arizona’s furious bid to change people’s expectations about it is running into what people already know, and what they’ve already been led to expect.

“There’s so much gray area in this law,” L.A. City Councilman Ed Reyes told CNN on Thursday. “There’s so much subjectivity ... As an American I would walk or travel or drive through Arizona with a sense of fear, a sense of caution. I would not feel as if I have the liberty to be there ... I’m vulnerable. I’m vulnerable just because of the way I look.”

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But back to tonight’s game: You can’t help but feel for the Phoenix Suns players. To a man, they’ve proven that their hearts and heads are in the right, morally defensible place on this when they wore their Los Suns jerseys last week, in the semifinals, as an expression of solidarity with the state’s 1.8 million Latino residents. All due props.

But this is bigger than the Phoenix Suns. This is really bigger than Arizona. As recent polls reveal that more and more Americans think racial profiling is a justifiable tool in the national security arsenal, we’re on a slippery slope towards becoming something this country has fought against, something crude and fearful and hysterical. We’re in the process of sliding backwards. And we’ve been here before.

What’s playing out in the issue of putting a new face on Arizona’s old ways is the emergence of a new old national question: What, exactly, does it mean to be an American? Are we prepared to compromise what we stand for to accommodate what we’re afraid of?

Let’s see how the marketing people handle that.

Image credits: L.A. City Council: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images. Brewer: Talking Points Memo.

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