Amanda Farah: Celebrity Digital Death: Why Hasn’t It Been More Successful?

Keep a Child Alive’s Digital Death fundraiser garnered a good deal of attention by convincing A-list celebrities to quit Twitter and Facebook to raise money to help children suffering from AIDS in Africa and India. Unfortunately, what has become most noteworthy about the campaign since its launch on December 1st has been its underperformance.

Five days into the campaign, donations still hadn’t hit the $300,000 mark, a rate that would keep Twitter-happy celebs offline for at least two weeks. But considering project founder Alicia Keys has 2.5 million Twitter followers alone, why is it taking so long for the Digital Death celebrities to reach their target?

“While celebrity is omnipresent, and we’re obsessed with celebrities, their influence in a tangible way, is much less than we would have thought,” says Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California and author of Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity:

Some celebrities have been incredibly successful at being philanthropic and getting us to pay attention to world events. But I think the call to action is really hard. And I think when it involves us having to give anything, we don’t as a society. We can’t find $10 to donate to an incredibly important cause. It does also mean that we don’t see our relationship with Kim Kardashian or Lady Gaga as being about that. They’re not influential in that way.

The campaign may be hampered by unclear donation requirements. The most emphasis has been placed on donating via text message, as was done after the Haitian earthquake. Donations to buy back the life of a specific celebrity are sent via text message at a flat rate of $10, which may be more than people are willing to give on impulse. There is now an option to donate to the campaign in general — not in the name of any one celebrity — for $5. What has been poorly publicized is that donations of as little as $1 can be made online and in the favor of a specific celebrity; this is not clear until the site’s visitor clicks the “Buy Life” button and chooses the amount of his or her donation.

It’s very ironic that a fundraiser based on abstaining from social media has failed to go viral. The #buylife hashtag hasn’t made it into the Trending Topics on Twitter, and now that the participants are offline, they are unable to rally their fans.

There is also a question of authenticity. The image greeting visitors to the site is that of Alicia Keys laid out in a coffin, taking the idea of “digital death” very literally. Not all of the celebrities participating in the campaign participated in the photo shoot, but most of them are featured playing dead in a coffin. Most of the poses are standard — eyes closed, hands folded. Some of them have their iPhones in plain view to remind us that we won’t be getting on-the-go updates. But then there is Swizz Beats flashing a peace sign; there is Kim Kardashian stretched out luxuriously with an arm over her head and her body twisted at a flattering angle; there is Kimberly Cole surrounded by pink rose petals.

“They’re not actually giving up their celebrity, they’re looking gorgeous and glamorous in a coffin,” says Currid-Halkett. Comparing Angelina Jolie’s humanitarian work with the UN to that of reality star Kardashian’s involvement with Digital Death, she says, “[Jolie’s] really good looking, so it’s not like she looks bad when she does these things, but you don’t get this sense that it’s about preserving her star power. You really believe her. It all feels right in the way Kim Kardashian posing in a coffin feels like it’s about Kim Kardashian and not about AIDS.”

The same celebrities posed in coffins also filmed YouTube videos, asking viewers in nearly identical language to “buy back their digital lives” that they’ve “sacrificed to save real lives.” The YouTube videos were a prime opportunity to make up for the lack of viral element in the campaign, but the scripted messages and unexpectedly awkward presentation of the celebrities makes for uninspired viewing. A montage of the different clips advertising the campaign has had 236,000+ views. Kim Kardashian’s video has had the most views of any individual participant with more than 63,000. Kimberly Cole has garnered the least attention, with just over 3,000 views. In sharp contrast, 2.2 million people watched Lady Gaga sit on hold with Chuck Schumer’s office when she called for her fans to ask their Senators to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in September.

In the meantime, the celebrities haven’t disappeared from the radar. Keys was photographed on December 1st at screening for the film Biutiful, the Kardashian sisters remain paparazzi fodder, and there has been a buzz about an injury Justin Timberlake sustained while filming his new movie Now (the injury is a pulled calf muscle). And some of the participants have updated their Facebook and Twitter statuses to remind their fans that the accounts are still dead, and where to go to bring them back to life. Whether or not fans pony up, they still have access to their favorite celebrities.

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