Does the Ice Bucket Challenge Really Make a Difference?

It’s been great fun to see the likes of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg pouring buckets of ice water over themselves in the last few days. I must admit to being as interested in their surroundings – was that Mark Zuckerberg’s back yard? (If so, he really needs to have the weeds in between his paving stones dealt with).

Was that Bill Gates’ private boat jetty? (Nice).

So there is the fun side and the snooping side of the challenge, both of which have no doubt added to its extraordinary viral success.

And its viral success is what has brought it to the attention of traditional media, which increases its reach.

This often happens.

Legacy media is obsessed with harnessing social conversations because it feels that is where the zeitgeist lies. Watercooler moments are now virtual, Tap into a real-time social conversation and audiences will come to you and your content.

But what is interesting about how traditional media has covered the ice bucket challenge is that the virality of the challenge has become the story – rather than the serious message at its heart.

Admittedly my N is only 1 here, but my colleagues at BBC News covered the story in the same way as I referred to it above: it’s an entertaining phenomenon in which famous people are seen in ways we don’t usually expect – and it’s also something that non-famous people are also involved in. Once again social media shows us that the rich and powerful are like the rest of us after all – they also shriek when drenched in freezing cold water (Oprah’s was the best, although Mark Zuckerberg’s somewhat Alpha-male, stoical response was a bit suspicious – was that water REALLY that cold, Mark??!).

Watch the BBC report here:

However, little of the coverage of the ice bucket challenge has focused on what it is actually for: encouraging donations to find a cure for Lou Gehrig’s disease (also known as motor neuron disease or MND in the UK). Bill Gates mentions it in his video seconds before his self-drenching, Oprah refers to it by the name of its most common form ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and MND is mentioned in the BBC report.


But one Facebook buddy makes a serious point: ‘I always thought finding cures for devastating neurological degenerative diseases required years of medical research costing tens of millions of pounds….but apparently all you have to do is pour a bucket of cold water on your head. Free publicity that makes you look like a caring philanthropist is obviously purely coincidental’.


There is insight in this – and a warning for the creators of the ice bucket challenge.

The donations made by those accepting the challenge – let’s call them the ice-bucketeers – has raised more than $15m (atow). That compares to $1.8m in the same period last year (the figures come from the ALS Association, via NBC news). That will certainly buy more publicity but will it fund enough research to find cure?

Furthermore, by accepting the challenge, is that as far as people need go? By drenching ourselves, are we absolving ourselves of any further responsibility or expectation of involvement in the cause?

Journalism suffers from the same dilemma. Thanks to social media, people share examples of amazing reporting – as they should – and more people become aware of problems/injustices/atrocities (even, sometimes, solutions – thankfully). But clicking ‘like’ or ‘retweet’ does not mean you are involved in the issue and it certainly does not imply you will do anything else about it, such as contact your local MP/Member of Congress, or take to the streets.

Similarly, a few moments of dread anticipation followed by a swift, cold drenching yields a funny reaction video and prompts some great comments online, but what else?

This campaign is about moving people along the Commitment Curve, a fundamental tool in any engagement strategy. Here’s a link from the always-excellent Global Extrovert that illustrates it:

The ice bucket challenge sits at several different places along the curve.

If your response to others’ doing it is just to ‘like’ or ‘retweet’ the video, then that is still a start. If you took the challenge you are at the stage of getting personally involved.

However this is where it could falter unless the purpose of the campaign – the substantive content – is not communicated effectively. Those engaging with the campaign – in whatever way – must understand more about what it is actually for, otherwise once it loses momentum, as it inevitably will, the world will be only a tiny bit closer (approx. $15m closer) to finding a cure. Effective communication tools must reflect solid content in order to generate continuous engagement.

I really hope the ALS Association spend some of the money raised on a concerted educational push. The next step must be to galvanize the extra support achieved via the entertaining ice-bucket meme into vocal communities of support that apply pressure in the right places to enable effective research and to, eventually, find a cure.

That really would send shivers down the spine.