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Three different agencies have used Jimmy Kimmel's "Celebrities Read Mean Tweets" segment to tackle social issues like cyberbullying in a stark manner.

With her extravagant beauty, wealth, and that Oscar statue warming her mantle, it's hard to feel bad for Julia Roberts.

When she and other glitterati read insults directed at them in the long-running gag on comedian Jimmy Kimmel's late night talk show, "Celebrities read mean tweets," it is played for laughs. But some new Canadian advertising campaigns are turning that idea on its head – to striking effect.

To highlight the issue of online bullying, Toronto advertising agency John St. produced a video called "Kids Read Mean Tweets." Seeing teenagers read messages such as, "You're a huge loser" and "just kill yourself" struck a chord. The campaign has attracted international attention.

The idea is to borrow some of the social currency attached to the well-known joke videos, spreading the word on the same social networks where much of the bullying occurs. (On Tuesday, as John St. monitored reaction to the campaign, there was a swell of social media conversation in Pakistan.)

"It's funny when you see them on Jimmy Kimmel. It's heartbreaking when you see just ordinary teenagers reading these things," said Angus Tucker, a partner and executive creative director at the agency.

The kids in the video, which was done for for the charity Canadian Safe School Network, are actors who volunteered their time. The tweets were written by the agency, based on real material. The actors' parents had the opportunity to read the tweets before their children saw them, and veto any if they wished; the kids then reacted to those messages in real time on camera.

"They're actors, but they're also kids, who are going through all this kind of stuff," Mr. Tucker said.

Recasting the joke so that the targets are not powerful celebrities, but vulnerable people, makes a stark difference. And as it happens, John St. were not the only ones who thought so.

When the video launched, another agency – Wax Partnership in Calgary – was working on the very same idea, for the website Bullying.org. Their "Teens Read Mean Tweets" video features real tweets, read by volunteer teenagers(who were not the targets of those messages.) When they saw the other video, they posted theirs quickly as well.

"More and more ideas are being drawn out of things that are in popular culture," said Trent Burton, creative director and partner at Wax. "We felt like it would be a really powerful way to get that message across."

Yet another agency thought the same thing, for a different message: On Wednesday, Raising the Roof, a Canadian charity that works with the homeless, is launching a campaign called "Humans for Humans." In videos, homeless people read real mean tweets, including accusations that their predicament "is all their fault," and insults about the way they look and smell.

The print ads and online videos direct people to the website, humansforhumans.ca, which hosts videos of homeless people responding to these comments.

"Everybody today has a voice, a Twitter account or Facebook, where they can say anything they want. The homeless don't get that opportunity," said Steve Persico, group creative director at ad agency Leo Burnett Toronto.

"We hope this empowers them to feel like they do have a voice, that people will listen, and that we can change the conversation," said Judy John, CEO and chief creative officer at Leo Burnett.

Piggybacking on a popular topic can get a campaign noticed more quickly. The campaign will be promoted on social media with the same searchable label – #MeanTweets – as the popular Kimmel segment.

That's crucial because charities generally have little to no advertising budget; campaigns depend largely on ad space that media outlets are willing to donate, which can mean unclaimed inventory. The ads are not always given premium space. An extra push on social media can help the message go much further.

In John St.'s case, the online campaign could expand that budget: It launched a fundraiser through Indiegogo.com, with the objective of buying an ad during a high-profile TV program such as the Stanley Cup playoffs – or potentially the Canadian simulcast of Jimmy Kimmel Live.

"You spend a bit of time online, and the worst of humanity is there – whether that's misogynist stuff; homophobic stuff; messages directed at people who are overweight or underweight; racism is rampant," Mr. Tucker said. "We wanted to touch on all the kinds of hate and bullying that's going on."

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