This post is part of the People’s Insights monthly brief for August.
Over the last few weeks, countless individuals, billionaires, former presidents and celebrities have posted videos of dousing themselves with ice water, helping make the ALS Ice Bucket challenge a viral phenomenon.
Despite the criticism, it’s not just fun and jokes – the challenge has helped raise funds and create awareness for ALS – Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a lethal neurodegenerative disorder also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It’s probably better known as the disorder that physicist Stephen Hawking suffers from.
In the last month, the ALS Association received $70.2 million in donations–a dramatic increase from the $2.5 million raised during the same time period last year (July 29 to August 24), and an increase of 1.3 million new donors!
Like it or hate it, it’s well worth examining how this challenge became a global movement so quickly.
Viral in Nature: How the Challenge works
The challenge is viral in nature. People who are nominated for the challenge can either donate $100 to help fight ALS or pour a bucket of ice water on themselves. They must then post the video on social media and nominate three more people to take the challenge within 24 hours.
Many participants opted to do both, and several people donated much more than the stipulated $100 (watch the Charlie Sheen 10K video).
It is not just individuals, but also communities and organizations who took up the Ice Bucket Challenge in groups. Local football teams (like Texas Tech Football), government employees and various companies like Yahoo, Cvent, and Jebbit, also took up the challenge.
An Organic Movement: How it began
The Ice Bucket Challenge was originally not associated with ALS, and was never a planned initiative by a brand or organization.
On July 15, Charles Kennedy in Florida who was nominated for the challenge by a friend, added the ALS twist, announcing that the money involved would go for ALS research because he suffered from ALS. He also nominated his cousin’s wife, thus kickstarting the sharing.
The challenge was amplified when it reached an ALS sufferer Pat Quinn from New York and his friend and fellow ALS sufferer Pete Frates, a former Boston College basketball player. Frates was well-connected with the local community, the Boston College community and the sports community, and played a key role in making the challenge go viral. (Here’s his story).
Watch the video: How the ALS Ice bucket Challenge started?
Celebrities Provide an Additional BoostSource: facebook.com/zuck
Celebrities played an important role in spreading the Ice Bucket Challenge. A diverse range of celebrities – CEO’s, actors, musicians, athletes and so on – took up the challenge, further nominating their famous and rich friends on social networks.
Tremendous Reach: 2.4 Million Videos on Facebook Alone
According to Facebook, more than 28 million users were talking about the challenge and have collectively uploaded over 2.4 million ice bucket challenge videos.
Twitter is typically the go-to platform for breaking news, but Facebook appears to be the social network of choice for the Ice Bucket Challenge, as participants are able to directly upload their #IceBucketChallenge videos on and tag their nominees.
The rich video content is also a good fit for YouTube, which is also where much engagement occurred (see the infographic).Source: mashable.com (data as of August 22, 2014)
Criticism: Omnipresent as always
As most social movements, the Ice Bucket Challenge too has received a significant amount of criticism. Critics point towards the wastage of water, focus on a disorder that affects ‘too few,’ slacktivism (people taking the challenge to avoid donating), and religious beliefs.
Here’s one meme that has been circulating on social media.Source: facebook.com/Tanner Hall
Other critics include Scott Gilmore a former Canadian diplomat, who argued that people should support a cause that is “the most needed, not the most viral:”
“ALS research is not an urgent need. If you want to help where time is of the essence, then look to Syria (greatest international refugee crisis in a generation), Ebola (now a full blown global health emergency), or the Central Africa Republic (quietly bleeding to death unnoticed by the world)”.
A surprising critic was the Roman Catholic diocese in Ohio, which discouraged participation at its 113 schools, stating that ALSA’s funding of embryonic stem cell research is in ‘direct conflict’ with its anti-abortion mission. The diocese suggested sending donations to other ALS related organizations who don’t use embryonic stem cell research.
The takeaway for PR practitioners – even campaigns that intend to do good need to be accompanied with a controversy-control plan, preferably one which considers global nuances.
People with ALS Respond: ‘Keep sharing’
The hype brought about by the Ice Bucket Challenge inspired people suffering from ALS to share their stories, views and emotions about the devastating disorder.
The most touching video may be that shared by Anthony Carbajal. He was diagnosed with ALS at 26, and addressed critics in one of his videos around the challenge, sharing that the disorder runs through his family and explaining why the challenge matters to ALS patients:
“This is the first successful advocacy we’ve ever had…every single challenge lifts my spirits, lifts every single ALS patient’s spirits…we’re so, so grateful.”
Bo Stern, whose husband suffers from ALS, urged people to keep sharing the word and keeping ALS in the news, in her blog post What an ALS family really thinks about the Ice Bucket Challenge:
“We are in for the fight of our lives with this monster, and the very LAST thing I want is for people to give quietly, anonymously, and then slink away. Raise the roof! Raise a ruckus! Call all sorts of attention to yourself! I will be happy for you and every Facebook like you receive, as you nudge ALS an inch or two closer to the collective public consciousness.”
Several communities have altered the challenge to make it more eco-friendly and meaningful (e.g. by donating rice in India instead of pouring ice), or to bring attention other issues (e.g. the rubble bucket challenge to highlight the desperate situation in Gaza).