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"All we have in the way of really hard evidence is what the police arrests are," he says. "They're way low. They're certainly not an underestimate, but it seems to me that it's incumbent on anyone who is writing about the problem to at least include that number on one end of the continuum, because that's probably the most justifiable number you have."
Ashton Kutcher owns one of the most-followed Twitter accounts in the world. His @aplusk handle famously beat CNN to a race to 1 million and never slowed down—he's now at 7 million followers and counting. He is a technically literate, if ill-informed, advocate.
Kutcher made his bones playing the prankster, dummy, and stoner.
Yet he's become so powerful that Piers Morgan, the British TV personality who replaced Larry King as CNN's go-to interviewer, had Kutcher and Moore on his show in April to spread the gospel.
Morgan quickly acknowledged Kutcher and Moore's Twitter throw weight, begging the couple to direct a few new followers toward him.
"It would be completely remiss of me to have two people who are the king and queen of Twitter to not selfishly use you for my own devices and get you to get my follower count up," he says. "So, just a little favor for little old Piersy, with his half a million followers... If you could just look at the camera and tell your followers—your 10 million followers—to follow good old @PiersMorgan."
The story of how Kutcher and Moore decided to use their star power to wage a battle against child prostitution helps illuminate how a social problem, of whatever magnitude, becomes a cause and how phony numbers take on the authority of folk wisdom.
The actors were watching TV in bed when they saw a horrifying documentary about sex slavery in some faraway foreign land and decided they needed to get involved.
But how to help?
Sex trafficking is a grim problem, and not one actors know a lot about—even if Moore played a stripper in a movie and has alluded to how she was "manipulated and taken advantage of" by a 28-year-old boyfriend when she was 15 years old.
So Kutcher and Moore did what any savvy Hollywood couple would do, which is call Trevor Neilson. Neilson isn't a household name, but he's quickly establishing his Santa Monica, California-based Global Philanthropy Group as the premier charity consultant to the entertainment industry's biggest and brightest. Neilson is a former Hillary Clinton staffer and Gates Foundation director who has been the subject of glowing profiles in Details and the New York Times.
"The king of Hollywood philanthropy" and his wife and business partner, Maggie, can charge up to $200,000 a year for their services because they're the best in a new and growing industry. The concept of a celebrity charity consultant is relatively new, but it makes sense, as Hollywood grows ever more concerned about image management. Neilson is the guy Madonna called to help her save face in the debacle surrounding her failed Malawi schools.
The Neilsons cooked up a 140-point "secret sauce" plan of attack for the Demi and Ashton Foundation (known as DNA). The Neilsons' political connections got the Department of Homeland Security to cast Kutcher and Moore in training videos that teach cops how to spot trafficked sex slaves.
"We went through a significant research process through them," Maggie Neilson says. "For Demi and Ashton, their strategy is actually pretty complex—there's a lot of different parts to it—but one thing that became clear through it...was that there was no one working on the demand side, and that's the side the data was showing more affectable."
Enter the "Real Men" campaign. The humorous commercials are designed to dampen the supposed appetite for underage prostitutes by suggesting that real men do funny, manly things such as look for their cars in parking lots while blindfolded or play basketball on a broken ankle. "Fake" men presumably hire tot-stitutes.
But if you are a highly paid consultant, mustn't you pair the juvenile humor with accurate numbers to maintain credibility instead of letting your clients regurgitate the outrageous "100,000 to 300,000" statistic?
Not an easy task, says Maggie Neilson, whose previous work was in the hot, hot, hot area of microfinance. Getting data about sex slavery was not easy, she says: "Versus most social issues I've worked on, there is actually a dearth of data—so it was absolutely cobbled together."
Accuracy is not a major concern for Maggie Neilson.
"All of the core data we use gets attacked all the time," she says. "The challenge is, it's that or nothing, right? And I don't frankly care if the number is 200,000, 500,000, or a million, or 100,000—it needs to be addressed. While I absolutely agree there's a need for better data, the people who want to spend all day bitching about the methodologies used I'm not very interested in."
Except the numbers Neilson fed her clients aren't undercounts masking even more shocking damage. The very police agencies Kutcher and Moore are coaching in videotapes document that the actual number of underage victims detained by law enforcement is slightly more than 800 a year, not 200,000, 500,000, or a million.