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Matt Damon, Water.org hope to make a splash with humor

The actor is featured in a short video, to be released Tuesday by the nonprofit organization, to draw attention to the world's water crisis.

February 12, 2013|By Wesley Lowery, Los Angeles Times
  • Matt Damon relaxes behind the scenes as he prepares to jokingly announce that he's not using the bathroom in protest of the 2.5 billion people who lack access to clean water and sanitation
Matt Damon relaxes behind the scenes as he prepares to jokingly announce… (Todd Williamson / Invision )

A casually dressed Matt Damon takes the podium and announces a stunning personal protest.

People just aren't taking the global water crisis seriously, he says. So, until they do, he won't be using the toilet.

Damon's public vow to take such a drastic step is part of a short humorous video the actor made to draw attention to the world's water crisis. The approximately three-minute video, "Strike With Me," to be released online Tuesday by Damon's nonprofit group, Water.org., continues a trend by such charities to harness the power of celebrity to create viral video campaigns around serious causes.

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But online video experts say Damon's effort is the first major attempt by a nonprofit campaign to venture into a terrain ruled by bloopers, babies and, above all, cute and cuddly cats.

"Cause-marketers haven't done much humor at all. This is definitely a new frontier," said Seraj Bharwani, chief analytics officer of Visible Measures, a firm that gauges the influence and reach of online videos. "We'll be watching this campaign very closely."

Of the 10 "most viral" nonprofit video campaigns, about half employed celebrities but none were innately humorous, according to Visible Measures' true reach analytic, which includes views on both the original video as well as unofficial duplicates.

Even if Damon's toilet strike video never goes viral, it underscores a shift by nonprofits away from costly paid television advertising toward smaller-budget online videos.

The Ad Council, which receives discounted rates for a substantial portion of production and airtime for its TV and online campaigns, spends between $800,000 and $1 million per public service announcement — a price tag too costly for many nonprofits.

But despite boasting an A-list celebrity, Water.org says it will spend significantly less than six figures on the "Strike With Me" video, which was shot for free in YouTube's new Playa Vista studio.

Another advantage is that online videos can be marketed directly to their target audience, said Michael Hoffman, chief executive of See3, an agency that specializes in digital and online video strategies for nonprofits and social causes.

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"Television advertisement is a blunt instrument," Hoffman said. "The Web can be a scalpel compared to the sledgehammer of television. You can be very specific about who you're targeting."

But even if it comes with a celebrity face and relatively cheap price tag, it remains to be seen whether Water.org's video campaign will click with viewers.

Invisible Children's "Kony 2012" campaign remains the gold standard for nonprofit video campaigns, after it racked up more than 30 million views in its first day. The Internet's most viral video successfully compelled an already captive audience of viewers — young participants that Invisible Children spent decades cultivating through camps and retreats — to share the video on social media.

Water.org hopes to replicate that self-propelling sharing model by enlisting YouTube stars — video bloggers with millions of subscribers among them — to tape reaction videos as part of the campaign.

A focus on social media momentum among a network of YouTube channel subscribers, coupled with Damon's celebrity, will hopefully be a successful strategy, said Mike McCamon, who runs Water.org's community outreach efforts.

That, combined with the nonprofit's embrace of humor, could prove to be the viral video secret sauce.

"We could do a million of the traditional PSAs," McCamon said. "But people just aren't shocked by statistics anymore."

One of the best known — and most ridiculed — celebrity-driven campaigns is the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' heart-wrenching commercials featuring singer-songwriter Sarah McLaughlin, which first premiered in 2007.

The ads feature images of abused animals cycled over the sound of the lyrics of McLaughlin's soft ballad "Angel" — a campaign credited with raising millions for the ASPCA but widely parodied on shows such as "Saturday Night Live" for being too sappy.

While there is certainly a place for more-somber PSA campaigns, many nonprofits are looking toward a more comedic approach to spread their message, said Jessica Mason, a YouTube spokesperson.

"We're seeing a lot of upcoming PSA campaigns that take a more humorous approach," said Mason. "Because, let's be honest, it's so much better than watching poverty porn or really sad little puppies being beaten on TV."

The key to Damon's "Strike With Me" campaign was finding the right balance between being tastefully funny and sufficiently informative.

"If it's just funny, then you move on with your day," said Jennifer Tisdel Schorsch, the nonprofit's chief marketing officer. "But if it's funny, and it makes you think, that's very powerful."

wesley.lowery@latimes.com


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