Sunday, November 28, 2010

Celebrities go offline to raise funds for World AIDS day

From The NY Times:

On Dec. 1, Kim Kardashian is going to die a little. So is her sister, Khloé, not to mention Lady Gaga, David LaChapelle, Justin Timberlake, Usher, Serena Williams and Elijah Wood.

That day is World AIDS Day, and each of these people (as well as a host of others — the list keeps growing) will sacrifice his or her own digital life. By which these celebrities mean they will stop communicating via Twitter and Facebook. They will not be resuscitated, they say, until their fans donate $1 million.

“Dry your eyes, everybody,” Ryan Seacrest, the “American Idol” host and another participant in this cyberstunt, says in a videotaped “Last Tweet and Testament” that will be posted on his Facebook profile — and appended to a final post on Twitter — sometime after midnight on Tuesday night. “I don’t plan to be dead for too long.”

He adds, “Please buy back my life.”

“Come on, y’all,” the actress Jennifer Hudson says in a similar videotaped plea. “Buy my life back. Go on a shopping spree and buy as much of it as you can.”

It’s all part of the latest gambit by the singer-songwriter Alicia Keys (pictured) to raise money for her charity, Keep a Child Alive, which finances medical care and support services for children and families affected by H.I.V. and AIDS in Africa and India.

It’s rare that the Prototype column pays attention to celebrities, but Ms. Keys is the second one who has caught our attention by harnessing fame to philanthropy in an innovative way. The actor Ed Norton, who was featured in the September column, created a Web site that makes it easy to rally people to your cause.

Ms. Keys is up to something slightly different. She knows that she’s not alone in thinking that America increasingly treats its celebrities like commodities. But she believes she’s the first to tether that reality to technology to do some good.

“It’s really exciting. No foundation has used the technology before like we are,” says Ms. Keys, 29, a multiple Grammy Award winner.

On Sept. 30, Ms. Keys and her charity’s co-founder, Leigh Blake, started Buy Life, which sells $35 gray T-shirts imprinted with a bar code. People who have uploaded a Stickybits or Wimo application to their smartphones can donate $10 to Keep a Child Alive simply by scanning any Buy Life T-shirt’s bar code.

“This Shirt Fights AIDS,” the shirts say on the back. “Scan the bar code or Text ‘BUYLIFE’ to 90999 to Join the Fight.”

The planned “Digital Death” this week will take that idea a step further. Famous people with lots of friends, fans and followers will go silent online, but not before calling for an outbreak of generosity. The participants are believed to have nearly 29 million fans on Twitter alone.

And as of Sunday, three days before World AIDS Day, stylized full-color photographs of celebrities lying in coffins, seemingly lifeless, with eyes closed, are to be displayed on the Buy Life Web site.

“Kim Kardashian is DEAD,” says the text that accompanies one of those photos, which features the reality-show star in a low-cut sequined burial outfit that suggests she “died” after a night out clubbing. “Kim sacrificed her digital life to give real life to millions of others,” it adds, asking fans to “visit or text ‘KIM’ to ‘90999’ to buy her life now.”

The strategy here is not just to shock people into paying attention but to enable them to give by doing, as Ms. Keys puts it, “what you always do.”

“You’re always texting your friends,” she says. “Now, you’re going to text to Buy Life.”

All that fans have to do is text the first name of the celebrity they’re “mourning” to 90999, and $10 will be donated.

“It’s a really instant way of grabbing their compassion,” Ms. Blake says.

You’ve heard of impulse buying. These women hope to create a new phenomenon: impulse giving. But the twist is that they’re still couching it in retail terms — winking at people in a way that makes them want to join in. “We’re taking the fixation with retail and with buying and all of that, and we’re turning it on its head,” Ms. Blake says.

Ms. Keys first learned the power of texting a couple of years ago, when she appeared on “American Idol” and, with a single on-the-air plea, raised “half a million dollars in about four minutes,” Ms. Blake says, adding that to date, Keep a Child Alive has raised $27 million.

More recently, when Ms. Keys set out to recruit her fellow luminaries to “die” along with her — she made all the calls herself — she was struck that “when I laid down the whole concept, it was impossible to say no.”

Ms. Blake has a theory about why. By packaging famous people like any other consumer product, she says, Keep a Child Alive is acknowledging something that many A-listers already know. “The artists and celebrities get that they are sort of being devoured already,” she says. “So they might as well have a bar code.”

She adds, however, that she expects the Buy Life campaign to spread far beyond its most recognizable participants: “My dream is to walk around New York City and see the traffic stopped because people are all scanning each other’s T-shirts.”

Whether people will miss their favorite stars’ 140-character missives enough to pay money to restore them remains to be seen. But if even one in 1,000 of the 3,465,527 followers of @jtimberlake is willing to donate $10 to reactivate the account on which he recently posted “Happy Halloween everybody!” — well, it will start to add up.

Similarly, if each of the 3,649,592 people who follow @RyanSeacrest texts “RYAN” to 90999, well, it won’t be long before we all can again enjoy such pearls of wisdom as this recent post: “have u ever been getting a massage ... then feel some gurgling in ur stomach ... and fear a gas attack?? What do u do?!”

MS. BLAKE says she is braced for the digital-death campaign to create some confusion. “I’m sure there will be some people who get it wrong,” she says, predicting “a flurry of freak-outs among a few who think Kim Kardashian or Alicia Keys are actually dead. That will be outrageous.”

But that’s part of the point.

“We’re not one of those enormous twinset-and-pearls kind of bureaucracies; we’re a small, energetic activist organization,” Ms. Blake says. “And we think the language of donations is boring.”

Ms. Keys agrees, describing her philanthropic approach as simply “rock star.”

“Everything is done just rebellious,” she says. “You want to show all your folks and your friends: ‘Look what I’m into. Get into it, too!’”