Efforts to “rebrand” Isla Vista in the eyes of greater Santa Barbara met backlash Thursday afternoon from community members who claimed the campaign reinforced long-held perceptions of the town as a hub for crime and destruction.
In the wake of riots and a mass shooting in the spring of 2014, District Attorney Joyce Dudley convened the “I.V. Safe Committee,” a group of stakeholders, which devised a new marketing strategy for its unincorporated stepchild of sorts. The first and second phases of public messaging have been rolled out over the past year and a half, with most content highlighting new safety measures like improved lighting and increased police presence.
Project consultant Ken Berris — who has worked on a number of national political campaigns, including President Barack Obama’s — reported a substantial drop in crime rates during prominent I.V. events since the ad campaign’s inception. I.V. Safe calculated a 68 percent reduction in Halloween arrests and citations and a 58 percent reduction during Deltopia last year.
“The challenge here was, for over 50 years, I.V. has had the reputation of a great party town, but from a safety standpoint, had always been the Achilles’ heel of Santa Barbara,” Berris said.
But many opponents saw the campaign’s angle as demeaning for its singular focus on tightening safety measures. Most visible to I.V. patrons are flags featuring the campaign’s “I.V.” logo, depicted as block letters inlaid with a painting of Pardall Road donated by area artist Chris Potter. In most ads produced so far, the design is embedded in slogans like “LIVE,” “GIVE,” and “THRIVE.”
The fine print of certain ads — namely full-page renditions printed by some local publications, including The Santa Barbara Independent — ruffled feathers among most of the approximately 20 stakeholders gathered at the I.V. Community Center to give feedback. Student activist Andrew Pragin, who affiliates himself with several ongoing community movements, pointed to a recurring phrase in each ad: “We want I.V. to take its place in our great community.”
Pragin and like-minded attendees protested such language for its conditional implication about I.V.’s place in the county. Melissa Cohen, manager of the Isla Vista Food Cooperative and longtime I.V. resident, argued that past instances of danger should never have been ground to exclude the town from Santa Barbara in the first place.
“We need branding help to help showcase all of the awesome stuff that’s happening,” she said, “not to iterate again to outside of Isla Vista that Isla Vista still has a long way to go, and maybe like, ‘throw them a bone.’”
Rodney Gould, general manager for the Isla Vista Recreation & Park District, has been one of the most direct stakeholders involved with I.V. Safe. He said he felt that those who funded the campaign had the most sway over its focus. “I didn’t feel like I was part of that message,” he said. “I got to see it when it was done, but I wasn’t there in any of the conversation.”
Law enforcement officers, university administrators, and elected officials such as Third District Supervisor Doreen Farr are among the committee’s sitting members, with branding consultant Berris contracted to sit at the project’s helm. Last year, UCSB, SBCC, and the City of Goleta each pitched in $15,000 dollars for the campaign’s media budget, with the county’s District Attorney’s Office and Sheriff’s Office contributing $5,000 each, according to Berris.
A television ad released by I.V. Safe last fall features local students and alumni, as well as public figures like Dudley and Sheriff Bill Brown, in 30 clips spliced together to convey a message similar to that of its print counterparts. Hundreds of local television slots — most donated and some during prime-time sporting events — have aired the commercial since its release.
During an introductory presentation to the group, Berris mentioned the possibility of reaching out to celebrities like Oprah or Katy Perry, who have ties to the Santa Barbara area, for testimonials to run in the next ad, an idea that prompted some further misgivings from his audience. “We [already] have a lot of people thinking that Isla Vista’s a certain way because they aren’t from here; they don’t live here,” said UCSB art professor Kim Yasuda.
Farr suggested limiting the scope of celebrity candidates to those with more direct ties to I.V., such as UCSB alumni singer-songwriter Jack Johnson or actor Michael Douglas. Others recommended also including more recognizable faces from within the current community.
“The communication process is twofold,” Berris said. “It’s not only to the people of Isla Vista, but it’s how the community itself thinks about Isla Vista. And to not address that the fact that there were 30, 40 years of this being a dangerous place… People will say, ‘what are you talking about?’”
I.V. activist Jay Freeman — also a candidate to replace Farr as Third District Supervisor — was notably silent at the meeting, just days after voicing his own objections to the project before the Board of Supervisors. Many of his concerns were echoed Thursday, however, and seem to be reshaping future discussion.
“Isla Vista has always been this amazing, thriving place,” said one community member. “We are not just our biggest failures.”