Wed, May 07, 2008 - Page 9 News List

How to sell activism

There are lots of good causes out there, but the public is limited in their ability to see how pressing they are. Cue the celebrities...

By Alex Williams  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

“Hitler is alive in Burma” reads the words scrawled on a cardboard sign held aloft by a sweet-faced Ellen Page, the Oscar-nominated star of Juno, in a 90-second human rights public awareness message that began showing on video-sharing Web sites last week.

The spot is one of 30 produced for US Campaign for Burma, starring celebrities like Will Ferrell and Jennifer Aniston. They will be distributed on Fanista.com, a social networking and entertainment retail site, then passed along to sites like YouTube and Google Video every day for the next month.

The goal of the campaign is to thrust the cause of human rights in Burma — now known as Myanmar — into the orbit of A-list activist causes, along with Tibet and Darfur, and to encourage international pressure on a government that activists say is one of the world’s most oppressive.

Attention will not be easy to gain, let alone pressuring the junta. As with other global campaigns, activists must figure out how to make Americans care about a distant crisis with complex causes involving relatively unknown players. And they must also make themselves heard in the glut of worthy causes, all with a chorus of earnest celebrities crying “Urgent!”

To do so, the Burma campaign has decided to use some of the same brand-building strategies — simplified narratives, clear-cut imagery and, of course, the most carefully selected celebrities -- used by other successful aid agencies, or even consumer goods marketers.

“In a certain sense, you have to ‘brand’ it up,” said Jack Healey, the founder of the Human Rights Action Center, a partner in the Campaign for Burma. “It’s the nature of the business now.”

And no wonder. The public today is bombarded by pleas to take action on global warming, Tibet, Darfur, breast cancer, starving children, Africans with AIDS, or Katrina victims, said Daniel Adler, the founder of Fanista.com. The company financed much of the series of spots, called “Burma: It Can’t Wait.”

“The power of the Internet to create micro-communities has meant that there is support of micro-causes, so there are many more now than there ever have been,” Adler said.

But the US Campaign for Burma will not be content to see Myanmar remain a micro-cause.

Jeremy Woodrum, a founder of the group, believes Myanmar is near the top of the list of global priorities, even in a world full of troubles. He says the military dictatorship has enlisted the most child soldiers in the world and destroyed twice as many villages as the Sudanese have in Darfur.

“There are a lot of situations, but really only a few that are extremely severe,” he said.

“When you’re talking about 3,200 villages destroyed and a million and a half refugees, I mean, that’s not everywhere,” he said.

“Our challenge,” he added, “is how to convey those facts publicly.”

Many Americans, Woodrum said, “couldn’t find Burma on a map.”

The most successful campaigns tend to have a built-in constituency in the US, Healey said. Darfur is of interest to some blacks, Healey said, since black Africans are the victims of what the US government calls genocide, and also to some Jews, who he said are often responsive to causes involving genocide.

Myanmar has no such large base in the US. Partly for that reason, he said, the campaign’s total budget would “not equal one week of Darfur’s budget.”

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