Viral Video: Celebs Try a New Tack to Free Burma

Kim Kardashian is an unlikely face for the campaign to free Burma. The reality TV star is better know for her sex tape and various other … well, assets. But she's one of more than 30 celebrities—some famous and some infamous—who have teamed up on a series of new video spots that human rights organizations hope will be a call to arms. The goal? To free Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy activist confined by Burma's military regime to house arrest for 12 of the past 18 years.

The organizers of "Burma: It Can't Wait," a mashup of human rights experts, Hollywood and the social-shopping Web site Fanista, are calling the campaign a new kind of public service announcement: there's no direct mail, no talking heads. Rather, over the next month they'll tap into the viral power of the Internet to mass-circulate videos from celebs like Jennifer Aniston and Ellen Page—educational vignettes they hope will garner the support of 1 million fans. Fanista, meanwhile, will offer its support by routing a portion of its customers' purchase payments toward the cause. "We really wanted to get into the hearts and minds of a new generation," says Jack Healey, the brain behind the concept and the founder of the Human Rights Action Center.

Viral video is certainly the way to do that. Just ask comedian Sarah Silverman; her satire about "f---ing Matt Damon"—obviously of a much lighter nature—exploded in the blogosphere earlier this year, banking millions of hits on YouTube and becoming an overnight sensation. Her take on Burma is lighthearted as well. In a short video she explains to a friend why she wants to become a doctor there (the country ranks 190th out of 191 in public health care), in between chatter of who got laid the night before. Funny? Of course: it's Sarah Silverman. Mildly trivializing? To anyone in the know, absolutely. But for the Tila Tequilas of the world? Maybe not. "That's the beauty of the Internet," says Dan Adler, the founder of Fanista and a former agent for the Creative Artists Agency in Hollywood. "It allows for the exchange of information to the broadest and widest set of people, to raise awareness among people that might not otherwise know about the issue."

And, of course, the power of celebrity can certainly get people watching. Whether it's Jessica Simpson in Iraq, Scarlett Johansson for Barack Obama or Bono in Africa, stars bring their causes to the public, and, undoubtedly, the public listens. Burma, organizers hope, will be no different. The trailer for the campaign, released exclusively to NEWSWEEK, comes just days after the 61-year-old Suu Kyi, the world's only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize recipient, was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal—the highest civilian honor the U.S. legislature can bestow. Meanwhile she remains confined. But because of restrictions on the flow of information in Burma—at one point the junta cut all Internet access in the country—little is known about her situation from the ground. The celebs in the video hope that their contribution—however superficial it might seem—will at least draw attention to her plight. "How else can you remind the world, without images, without daily reporting?" asks Maureen Aung-Thwin, a leading Burma expert who is not associated with the project. "This is such an underreported cause and devastating situation," says Sylvester Stallone, who spent six months on the border of Burma while filming "John Rambo" last year. "The celebrity, I hope, will cause the viewer to pause and think."

That sounds good in theory. But beyond that pause, how much can a famous face really help? Nobody would disagree that there's hardly a better way to get the attention of the celebrity-obsessed public than to have the rich, beautiful and famous make a plea for their support. But a 2005 poll by market research firm GMI, which surveyed 20,000 people around the world, found that 79 percent of Americans don't believe a celebrity endorsement has an effect on how valuable they think a product is. "There are people who genuinely do good," says Rachel Weingarten, a New York-based publicist and the head of GTK Marketing group. "But there's a tendency for celebrities to overshadow the cause."

Of course, many would argue that it doesn't matter if the celebs are just in it for the photo op—as long as their appearances spread the word. The many stars of Project (Red) might not be experts on Africa, but their faces have helped sell the campaign's products, which, in turn, have raised millions of dollars for the Geneva-based Global Fund. P. Diddy's "Vote or Die" slogan might have enlisted shameless (and unregistered voters) like Paris Hilton to pose on the red carpet, but it got kids talking about politics. "I always felt that celebrity endorsement can be a turnoff to people," Silverman tells NEWSWEEK. "But I also think that if you're given an opportunity to bring light to something … people would care about if they only knew about it, it's kind of douchey not to." Adds documentary filmmaker Joshua Seftel, "If it's helping people, who cares [if it's genuine]?"

That's not to suggest that boldface names—particularly the A-listers—are insincere. The tireless, often grueling work and travel of actors like Angelina Jolie and George Clooney have brought more attention to the Save Darfur campaign than any charity or human rights group before them. And Jolie, a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations, has been said to have more influence on international affairs than many experts on the subject. Yet for all their successes, the reality on the ground in Darfur is that there has been no improvement. Some even say the activists' power to dictate priorities has made the crisis worse.

In the case of Burma, organizers believe any attention is good attention. The junta there has long ignored calls for Suu Kyi's release, running the country with an iron fist since her National League for Democracy won elections in 1990. Getting her released will take more than viral power, but it's a first step, says Jeremy Woodrum of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, which is involved in the campaign. "Actors, athletes, musicians, and others can cut through the military regime's propaganda in a way that politicians can not," he says. "The messenger counts, a lot." And, of course, the message.