Actor Matt Damon gazes at a press conference of unusually well-groomed journalists.
He has an announcement to make.
“I’m going on strike,” he says, to protest lack of sanitation in developing countries. “Not from acting, that would be too easy.”
“A strike from going to go the bathroom,” he says.
There is silence, then consternation.
“What?” asks a bewildered reporter.
Questions erupt. For how long will he strike? Will he refrain just from actual bathrooms and do his business elsewhere? Will he forswear, asks a flustered TV anchor, groping for network-acceptable vocabulary, from “pee-pee and caca or just pee-pee?”
Damon shoots back, quickly if not very helpfully: “You do the math.”
The press conference ends in tumult.
The surreal exchanges are scripted and the journalists are actors, but the scene is not part of a movie. It is the first in a series of YouTube videos put together by an unusual alliance of Google, Hollywood, social-media creators and a non-profit advocacy group, water.org.
The campaign, which was launched on Tuesday and will build up to World Water Day on March 22, hopes its combination of celebrity, social media and humor will appeal to young people and go viral on the Internet.
“It was Matt Damon’s idea two years ago: How do we persuade people to give a shit about toilets?” water.org’s director of strategic initiatives Chevenee Reavis said.
Shocking statistics — such as a child dying from a water-related illness every 20 seconds — did not on their own command attention, Reavis said, and water.org had just a five-figure budget for its campaign.
The Kansas-based group, which Damon co-founded, decided to focus on YouTube, in the wake of the stunningly successful Kony 2012 campaign, a short film about the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony that was made by the non-profit Invisible Children. Kony 2012 was viewed more than 100,000,000 times and stirred a US Senate resolution.
Damon and his collaborators hope their “strike with me” campaign will ignite the Internet and pressure Washington to revive the stalled Water for the World Act, which would increase funding for projects in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.
The star is most popular with women aged 34 to 45, not a group which drives YouTube hits. So the campaign decided to use comedy and hip YouTube creators in an attempt to attract younger viewers.
The hope is that once the joke — and the serious intent behind it — is revealed, viewers will pledge funds and, most importantly, lend their online identity to the campaign. They will be invited to click on a link enabling water.org to occasionally use their social-media accounts, such as Twitter and Facebook, for six weeks. Recipients may not realize at first that such content comes from a non-profit rather than online friends.
“Welcome to the petri-dish,” water.org’s chief community officer Mike McCamon said. “The idea is you sign in and give permission to us for a finite period.”
Content will be generic yet personal, “so it looks like you posted it.”