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Amnesty's New Cause

In a bid to recruit younger members, the rights group seeks to buff up its image through Hollywood links.

January 06, 2002|DANA CALVO | Times Staff Writer

In an episode this season of "ER," actor Noah Wyle, who plays the young, honorable Dr. Carter, walked in front of the cameras wearing a gray T-shirt with the Amnesty International logo on the front. There were no lines in the script about either Carter's T-shirt or the 40-year-old human rights organization, but the message to NBC viewers was clear: Guys like Carter--cool guys--dig Amnesty International.

But the path of that message from Amnesty International to the set of an incredibly popular, award-winning drama is less clear.

Through his publicist, Wyle said that although he thinks Amnesty is "terrific," the shirt was happenstance. It was just one of several he could have selected that day from the costumers, including one bearing a Nike logo. That's true, but there was a backup plan to ensure Amnesty's "prime-time, pro bono, product placement."

Had Wyle chosen the Nike shirt, another cast member or an extra would have been given the gray T-shirt.

"We sent these T-shirts around to costumers ... and a lot of them were so happy to get Amnesty some exposure," said Julie Weinhouse, owner of Hero Product Placement, an advertising firm whose paying clients include Lego, Hawaiian Punch and Radisson. "The costumers said they'd try to get it on somebody. But celebrities don't want to officially endorse something, so it's an implied endorsement."

A new day has dawned for Amnesty International, which is determined to replenish its aging member base with a new generation of activists. Suddenly, it is not just a gadfly to despots and a hero to thousands of oppressed individuals. Amnesty International is employing sophisticated media strategies that dwarf its previous attempts to keep up with the times. The new strategies include surgical prime-time placement, a post-Academy Awards bash and a film festival in West Hollywood.

"We need a revolution from people in a business that has clout," said Bonnie Abaunza, who was hired away from a small film company last spring to start Amnesty International's national office of artist relations. "We are asking them to champion a particular prisoner of conscience. We're going out actively into the community and asking them to help us take this to a whole new level, including an advisory board of artists who will help shape our strategies."

Abaunza came on board in May and asked Weinhouse to start working on prime-time series that same month. She also made the rounds of producers and actors in hopes of linking Amnesty with future projects. Simply put, Abaunza knew that prime-time subliminal programming would not be enough. She needed to penetrate Hollywood. Then the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 occurred, and the strategy to tie Amnesty's logo and literature to several movie premieres was postponed for nearly three months. When she returned to the drawing board, the Christmas movie premieres were already set in stone, and Abaunza revamped the campaign to fit in with Hollywood's next news cycle--the film festivals and award show season of late winter.

"Sept. 11 reinforced for every American that the violation of people's human rights have a profound and direct impact on our own lives, our security, our economic lives, our public health," said Amnesty International USA's executive director, William Schulz. "Who is in a better position to reach both mainstream Americans and different demographic segments of the population with the message that human rights matter, and that our very lives are at stake if we deny people's human rights around the world? Who is in a better position than the artistic community? Nobody."

Amnesty faces different kinds of challenges than the causes that Hollywood has embraced in the past. Typically, the media elite rally around causes when one of their own is affected: Paul Glaser championed AIDS awareness after his wife died from the disease. Katie Couric became a spokeswoman for colorectal cancer after she lost her husband to it. Muhammad Ali and Michael J. Fox have pushed for research into Parkinson's disease.

But few members of the entertainment industry have been held in foreign jails, banished to life in exile or imprisoned without trials. Amnesty must get image makers emotionally invested in the plight of an unidentifiable population of victims. In a sense, then, Amnesty has to make stars of its survivors, make them knowable to an industry willing to adopt them.

A good example is Jose Ramos-Horta, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning East Timor refugee, who thanks Abaunza for bicoastal talent representation and a book deal. The 52-year-old Ramos-Horta, who has returned to his homeland to help rebuild the country, is writing a book about his experience. Weeks after Abaunza came on board, she put him in touch with a few talent agencies, including William Morris, which ultimately signed Ramos-Horta with Suzanne Gluck in New York and Alicia Gordon in Los Angeles.

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