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Ice Bucket Challenge Under Scrutiny

How Long Till The Craze Kicks The Bucket?

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has been called many things – fun, moronic, heartfelt but above all, viral. It’s symptomatic of social media’s far-reaching power to spread the word rapidly about a cause through peer pressure and peer validation. This isn’t a post aimed at knocking the charity, which undoubtedly carries out much needed research into a fatal disease, but it will look a little closer at why people are getting quite so caught up with it. Love it or hate it, the Ice Bucket Challenge is a business and marketing success of the highest kind, and compared to the truly pointless spectacles of the likes of Gangnam Style – which racked up over one billion YouTube views of a fat man dancing – at least there is some do-gooding with ALS.


Like other successful viral campaigns, the Ice Bucket Challenge pulls at all the right social and emotional heart strings to get people to give up their pocket money. Here’s some of the reasons why the Ice Bucket Challenge has gone quite so worldwide so quickly:

It’s easy. Dump some water over your head.

It’s funny. See above.

Everyone can do it. See above.

There are also more complex psychological triggers that are being pushed in the process, for example the sense of accomplishment and pride that comes from a charitable action and the ensuing likes, comments and retweets on your profile mean that gratification (particularly social and public) is an important part of the success. At the other end of the spectrum we’ve got a nice dollop of public humiliation and guilt for those nominated to be next up. Top it all off with a bit of quick maths: everyone nominates a further three people to continue the challenge chain, which means it would take just 20 rounds to reach the world’s entire internet population.

So, as moronic as it may appear to the cynics, it’s actually proven to be a real business and marketing hit. However, there are elements of the campaign that require a closer look. There’s the easy shot – Jane Gilbert, President and CEO of ALS, gets a cushty salary of $339,475, with the other ten senior figures all receiving six-figure pay packages; according to a Health Impact News article, this means that over 50% of funds is likely used to support the salaries of the ALS staff. Coupled with this, only 27% of the money donated to the charity actually goes towards researching a cure for the disease. This is, however, considerably more than a number of other charities channel into action, namely the disgraced Kony 2012 campaign which focused more on its social media presence than ousting said war criminal.


It is also worth noting that in current economic climates, even the most worthy charities must be run like companies whose profits are then donated back into the original cause; non profit charities are still corporations with overheads, and like any business much of these will go towards salaries. As outlined at the top of the article, this isn't out to get Gilbert and her Ice Bucket Challenge - indeed, her hefty salary ensures connections with many wealthy deep-pocketed donors, and the ALS Association receives an excellent 4* on Charity Navigator with 9/10 for transparency and accountability. There will be many however, whose gut reaction is to feel it is unjust and disproportionate that one, fairly specialised charity is receiving such exuberant attention on social media.


So, the idea of the ice bucket challenge went viral thanks to social media. What is less well known is the nature of the disease and the reasons people are posting millions of videos of themselves being drenched in freezing water – ask someone who’s just been ice bucketed what the letters ALS actually stand for and they’d probably struggle to tell you. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, but this is often missed off of video descriptions. Despite the fact that the purpose of the campaign (to donate and raise money for the charity’s research) seems to be fading into the background in favour of playground pranks, the campaign has still been an unequivocal success due to the viral nature of social media, raising nearly $42 million in a month or so - more than double what was raised in the whole of 2013.

But is the ice bucket challenge quite as noble as many would like to imagine? There is the obvious issue of water waste. I’m sure Jane Gilbert’s contemporaries over at Water Aid are holding their heads in despair. As mentioned above, although there are 2.4 million videos on Facebook depicting people’s slapstick performances, very few tend to post a link to the ALS page or text number for donation. Even fewer share the origins of the ice bucket challenge, which makes it tricky to identify as no one seems sure where the campaign came from or who it is in honour of? It’s as if it popped up like so many other silly and ultimately pointless social media sensations.

As the Ice Bucket Challenge is so intrinsically tied into social media, indeed it wouldn't have flourished or survived without it, this does raise slight distrust from the older or less tech-savvy; the celebrity culture and narcissistic 'look at me' nature of an Ice Bucket performance strikes many as gratuitous. For the old guard it may seem that people are getting involved for the wrong reasons, as it's less about the plight of the unfortunate and more about watching hunky David Beckham topless.

The ALS Association is an American charity, which of course is no crime in itself, but there will likely be a proportion of people outside of the US who may feel that they don't wish to donate money to a foreign charity - of course, it doesn't matter where the medical breakthrough comes from, but when there is a finite supply of funds to go around, UK citizens may prefer to donate to UK-based charities and help support families a little closer to home.

Videos are now coming out of Gaza with the hashtag #RubbleBucketChallenge, which make the evocative point that the area doesn’t have access to much water and ice is out of the question since electricity is off most of the time. The video has over 2,600 likes, but watching citizens pour the remains of destroyed houses over themselves in order to participate in the ‘challenge’ makes for sobering viewing.

It’s this dichotomy between playing up for the cameras in order to get a few vanity likes and the story of someone’s suffering that seem somewhat at odds in the context of ‘charity work’. But it is precisely this juxtaposition that lends the ice bucket challenge so neatly to social media – a place where things are shared countless times on the back of their entertainment value and quirkiness. Things don’t need to hold any particularly deep or philosophical meaning, they can just be social; better still if they can dupe people into making fools of themselves in the name of a good cause (even if this cause is sometimes lost in water-logged news feeds).

As mentioned at the beginning, this post isn’t about knocking the work of charities. The ice bucket challenge has done a lot of good - it’s raised awareness and millions of pounds for the cause, which is surely the aim of any charity. But before you pick up the bucket, perhaps make sure you know the reasons you’re doing it for.

Katie Rowley 

Recent graduate and now interning as content editor, when she's not writing articles Katie can quite likely be found festival-ing, holiday-ing or reading a book (dedicated English student that she is). Follow her @KatieAtSMF.

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Ice Bucket Challenge Under Scrutiny Reviewed by Anonymous on Friday, August 29, 2014 Rating: 5
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