The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

Critics are throwing cold water over the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, but there’s something to be learnt from the viral video campaign that’s made more than a splash using social media.

Just when I thought I might have got away with it, when the whole craze looked ready to combust, it finally happened. I was nominated to do the Ice Bucket Challenge.  Meaning: you can now expect me to dump icy cold water over my head, film it, and post it up on my social media with an nifty hashtag #icebucketchallenge or #MND for your viewing pleasure.

More importantly, it will hopefully add to the chain and bring that little bit more attention to ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), also known as Motor Neuron Disease in the UK. As a progressive neurodegenerative disease, ALS/MND leaves many sufferers completely paralysed, incapable of feeding themselves and eventually unable to breath on their own. It is a truly devastating condition and whilst it affects relatively few people, only half of those diagnosed survive the first three years and only 10% the first ten. Dumping ice water on our heads is meant to remind us of the paralysing effects of the disease as the cold instigates a similar albeit much, much smaller and short-lived physiological response.

Anyone paying attention will have followed the challenge’s tidal sweep. Gaining momentum after personalities from US show, Morning Drive, took part live-on air, the campaign quickly earned massive celebrity shout-outs from Jimmy Fallon, Will Smith, Victoria Beckham and Benedict Cumberbatch (dowsed five times in his video).

After that it rolled over to everyone else, hopping the Atlantic with a conspiratorial wink, encouraging social media uses worldwide to take part, donate and nominate.  It’s definitely made more than a splash. It’s swept across the globe in a tsnami of chilly, damp munificence.

Since becoming a social media phenomenon around three weeks ago the ALS Association has raised nearly £50 million (circa USD$80 million), roughly 500% more than it raised in the same period last year. It’s become so popular Macmillan Cancer Care and other charities have attempted to appropriate the campaign for themselves, to varying degrees of success.  As Dan Diamond wrote in Forbes, ‘the #ALSIceBucketChallenge—is everywhere. It’s annoying. But it’s working.’

However, as Diamond notes, many are growing tired of seeing the same videos over and over, those taking part have been accused of flagrant self-promotion rather than charitableness (aka: Slacktivism), and recently there’s been a sense of internet one-upmanship that has not always ended well.  It’s no longer enough to simply toss water over your head and shudder at the cold, now it’s necessary to endure several bucket loads, maybe even a forklift full – or an aeroplane – in order to gain the respect of your online buddies. The challenge itself should not be dangerous, and the number of funny, incredibly honest ‘fail’ videos could probably generate an entire episode of You’ve Been Framed but some people really have taken it too far. Reckless behaviour has allegedly been linked to the hospitalisation of one man and the death of a teenager in Inverkeithin, Fife. Part of the issue seems to be the peer-pressurised element of the Ice Bucket Challenge. Once you have been nominated, not performing can lead to criticism and even online abuse from ‘friends’ and followers.

Moreover, one of the risks is that the longer the campaign thrives, the more likely it seems to generate negative attention. The Guardian commented on this by suggesting that the social media that birthed the craze could also kill it. After all, there’s #droughtshaming to remind you that in places like Henan, China and California ‘taps have dried up, lakes and reservoirs are emptying and water wastage is being fined’. Plus some celebrities are refusing the challenge on ethical grounds. Pamela Anderson’s decision to forego the challenge because of reported medical testing on animals has already generated a following. The question of how much money is actually spent on salaries and publicity instead of research has similarly become a point of contention.


But as we’ve already noted, the death knell could sound in the form of accidents and fatal injuries. Becoming associated with deaths and foolhardy egoism was the beginning of the end for Neknominate, which required participants to down alcohol and led to five UK deaths. As more become disillusioned with the plethora of soggy friends posting their videos the more likely it is for the negative press to take over the positivity and humour that has largely dominated thus far. Yet even Neknominate led to a more positive counter-campaign: ‘Donate-Nominate’, which asked participants to leave the beer and donate blood instead. It seems people want to use social media for good causes, even when posturing attempts to subvert it. Perhaps this is what we are seeing when people react against the participants who fail to mention the charity or cause.

Viral chains and popular organisations are not new. Ever since the Civil Rights Movement contemporary media (in particular television and radio) has been used to emphasise mass protests and popular causes. In 1986, Hands Across America instigated a benefit event in which 6.5 million people held hands in a human chain across the continental US. And in 1989, 2million people created a ‘Chain of Freedom’ across 600km to draw attention to the popular vision of Baltic independence from the USSR.  With so many involved, these human chains symbolised unity within a nation, gained international attention and like the Ice Bucket Challenge, emphasised the power of mass communication when the message was both emotionally captivating and visually stunning. The ALS Challenge may not be ‘emotional’ or ‘stunning’ per se, but it does tap into the desire to be part of a larger cause and there has certainly been some heart-wrenching content mixed in with the humorous and downright hilarious.

What is poignant, is that it has appropriated Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to generate the perfect media storm. To make a disease and its charity personal as well as global.

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has done everything right. Timed perfectly to coincide with summer sunshine, it took a niche plight, mixed in some celebrities (which led to more A-listers than probably ever anticipated), made it a personal challenge that everyone could interact and engage with and they kept it simple. They let it grow and take on a life of its own and here we are in the present, wondering where it might go next.

Whatever the verdict, be it a health risk or a meaningful act of charity, I will tipping a bucket over my head this evening.

Thank you for the nomination.

Je serai poète et toi poésie, 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s