I’m happy for everyone in the ALS community, but the “ice water challenge” has to be one of the most poorly thought out campaigns in history


I should start out by saying that I love the ALS Association. Having grown up with a grandmother who suffered from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, I cannot express how thankful I am that there’s an organization out there successfully raising money to fund research. It’s not a disease that many people have direct knowledge of, and, in a world filled with pink ribbons, it’s nice to know that, on occasion, people can be persuaded to fund organizations that address something other than cancer. It’s also nice to know that the ALS Association is one of the best run, most efficient non-profits out there, and that the money they raise really does go toward research and programs to benefit the ALS community. (Sadly, that’s not always the case with non-profits such as these.) With all of that said, though, I’m finding their recent “ice bucket challenge” campaign to be completely bewildering.

Never before in my life can I recall such a confusing campaign gaining so much traction. I mean, the whole idea at the outset was that, if you were challenged by someone, and chose not to give $100 to the fund ALS research, you’d have to dump ice water over your head, right? In practice, though, that’s not what’s happening at all. People are dumping ice water on their heads willy nilly. Sure, some of them are giving money to the ALS Association, which is great, but, for the most part, the premise seems to have been totally abandoned. I’ve been trying to come up with a suitable analogy and the best I can come up with is this… It’s like if someone says, “I’ll bet you five dollars that can’t get that girl’s phone number,” and you respond by just handing over five dollars, getting the girl’s phone number, yelling “Whooooo!” triumphantly into your iPhone, and posting the whole thing to Facebook. (I know that’s a terrible analogy, but it’s late and I’m tired.)

Maybe they knew it would play out like this from the very beginning, and that the premise wouldn’t matter. I mean, they must have known that people who refused to give them money weren’t likely to get on YouTube, announce “I’ve got better things to do with my money than give it to ALS research,” and have a bucket of ice water dumped on their heads, right? But, if they knew that, why’d they bother with the premise at all? Why didn’t they just say, “We want really cool people to show how much the support ALS research by sending us a check and then dumping a bucket of ice water over their head”?

It just doesn’t make sense to me. But I’m not complaining. They’ve obviously tapped into something, and it’s paying off for them. As I understand it, they’ve already taken in over $14 million since the start of the campaign, compared to just $1.7 million during the same time period last year. And that’s incredible. I guess they found the perfect, relatively easy, mildly uncomfortable, somewhat funny thing that would allow regular folks to be the center of attention for a while on social media, and lots of people, understandably, have jumped at the opportunity.

You hear the term “slactivism” thrown around quite a bit these days, but it really seems to ring true here. People who might not have the gumption to actually learn about ALS, and ask their friends to donate, are more than willing to whip out their cell phones, make a short video of their being doused with ice water, and then challenge their friends to do the same. The barrier to entry is super low, and it syncs up perfectly with the wave of widespread narcissism we’ve ben riding as a culture since the launch of Facebook.

If there are any academics out there who study such things, I think this would make a fascinating research project… Among the questions I’d like to have answered… How many people who publicly participated in the challenge actually followed through afterward and wrote the check to the ALS Association? Of those that did, how many are likely to give to the charity again in the future, when ice water isn’t a factor? How many people who participated actually know what ALS is? And, most importantly, what motivated them to actually do it? Was it the peer pressure, the idea of being publicly challenged by a friend? Was it the desire to feel as though, for a moment, they were a part of a community? Was it a genuine desire to stop ALS? There are so many awesome questions that could be asked.

Again, this isn’t criticism. I think the whole thing is great. I just don’t really understand it, and I’d be fascinated to know why it has caught on the way that it has.

update: When thinking about an image for this, I settled on Carrie White getting pig’s blood dumped on her head, as I found the idea that someone would do that for charity to be kind of funny. Now that it’s up there, though, I’m thinking that I should have approached it differently. I should have, for instance, had her charity be the Telekinesis Foundation of Maine… Oh, and before settling on Carrie, I thought about drawing a comic with a person dumping a bucket either full of lice or red hot embers on their head. That turned out to be too hard, though. I do, however, really like the idea that another charity, hoping to get in on the action, might try to up the ante a bit. And I love the phrase “Lice Bucket Challenge.”

update: With out without ice water running from the tip of your shivering nose, you can give to the ALS Association here.

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  1. alan2102
    Posted August 20, 2014 at 4:50 am | Permalink

    If I had a spare hundo to contribute to ALS, I would want it to go to real thinkers, innovators and in-the-trenches experimenters — “jock scientists” — like Dave J, if he took contributions. That would be as opposed to going into the jaws of the insatiable money-eating Medical/Pharmaceutical/Academic/Industrial complex (now running well over $2 trillion per year… and no answers to ALS in sight).

    Dave J Posted: Friday, July 20, 2012 3:27:09 AM
    “One of the wonderful features of “jock science” as a branch of medical research, is that the guinea pigs are human beings who typically are avid experimenters who measure results. The consequence of this sort of activity is a market that evolves rapidly to reward production of stuff that actually works. If it were easy for a human guinea pig to measure results in ALS, we’d have solved the problem by now without any need for the ALS drug development industry that we’re presently stuck with.”
    “‘jock science’ really does work, at least for me, and would probably work for many other ALS patients. The downside is that “jock science” is not one pill you take, it’s a comprehensive approach that involves not just a lot of pills, but other things as well. Unfortunately none of this is of any interest to the medical profession.”
    “Can you imagine taking 40 Rx medication pills, comprising about 25 different substances, for breakfast? I do that with ‘natural stuff’ and there are no undesired side effects, other than possibly some stuff I’m taking may be useless for me in my situation. If that was Rx stuff, it’d likely kill me before lunch. And they call what I do ‘alternative medicine’!”

  2. Dirtgrain
    Posted August 20, 2014 at 6:06 am | Permalink

    I just saw this on Reddit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XLZOjLv0_6k&feature=youtu.be

  3. Meta
    Posted August 20, 2014 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    From the NY Mag article on why this campaign has been successful.

    It makes the giver feel great. The ice-bucket challenge is a feel-good, feel-cold summer phenomenon — its participants get to do something silly, and get to feel good about themselves for doing something silly. It’s called the “warm glow” effect, and it turns out to be a powerful motivator. The idea is that donors are often not being entirely altruistic when they give away their cash. They are getting a sense of validation or some other emotional rush from the act. The ice-bucket challenge provides a strong emotional rush, judging by all those Facebook videos, helping explain its money-raising mojo.

    Read more:

  4. Lynne
    Posted August 20, 2014 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    I read somewhere that the ice bucket challenge didn’t start as a benefit to any charity at all but that later on, as it started to go viril, someone decided to link it to ALS. That might explain why it seems so odd that a charity thought of this as a fundraiser.

    I also know that one thing about public giving is that it makes people feel good. I think that is awesome. If someone wants to dump ice water on their head and then donate money, more power to them. However, one thing I know about this kind of thing is that in general, it doesn’t actually cause people to donate more money overall than they otherwise would. They just take money they would have donated to some other charity and donate it to ALS. I know this is true in my case. I give to certain regular charities but I also have money designated for spur of the moment charity things. Things like this or when my friend wants me to sponsor her in some 5k for cancer or whatever.

    I don’t think this ice bucket challenge is causing people to donate money they wouldn’t have donated to some other charity. Yet, everyone seems to be having fun and the ALS is a deserving charity so I can’t find it in myself to criticize anyone for participating.

  5. idea man
    Posted August 20, 2014 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    Even George Bush is getting in on the action.


    (I would have liked it better if Cheney had been the one dumping the water on him.)

  6. Jim Cherewick
    Posted August 20, 2014 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    next will be planking for poverty

  7. Posted August 20, 2014 at 9:46 am | Permalink


  8. Adam
    Posted August 20, 2014 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    Good article. I think you hit the nail right on the head. The ALS Association has tapped into something and that is the seemingly hopeless narcissistic condition of the Millennial generation. Which is great for the ALS Association, why not take advantage of the “Selfie” generation for a greater good? I would do it.

  9. John Galt
    Posted August 20, 2014 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    This is an affront to the poor people of Detroit who have no access to free ice water!

  10. Frosted Flakes
    Posted August 20, 2014 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Sausage eating contest

  11. Burt Reynolds
    Posted August 20, 2014 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    14 Million>1 Million

    Who cares what the point is, it works.

  12. Elf
    Posted August 20, 2014 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    It’s dangerous. So be careful. The Ice Bucket Challenge made Kermit the Frog go dormant.


  13. Marcia
    Posted August 20, 2014 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    We talked about this at work. All of us rehab therapists who work with people everyday with neuromuscular disease. Our collective verdict: it’s net positive. It’s a creative way to bring up a tough issue, and in the end there is always “diseases/cause” fatigue. I think it’s a bit early for cynicism.

  14. Taco Farts
    Posted August 20, 2014 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    People, especially the people of the generation making the majority of these videos, are desperate to participate. Give them an opportunity, and they will often do what you (nicely) ask of them in return.

    *Argue on your own time, please, about the reasons they’re so starved for something meaningful to do.

  15. Jcp2
    Posted August 20, 2014 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

    The effect is positive but maybe the discomfort is with the realization that the Color Run demographic can make a difference.

  16. Dan
    Posted August 21, 2014 at 12:06 am | Permalink

    I agree that its great that they raised a ton of money, but there is certainly some truth to the theory of “cannibalizing” other charities. and why ALS is a shitty ass disease, very few people actually suffer from it.

    and the financial reports on the ALSa website show less than 10% of their “revenue” is spent on research. in fact, they spend much more one fundraising than they do on research.

  17. Mr. Y
    Posted August 21, 2014 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    Dan, you’re wrong about the ALS Foundation. They have a 4-star rating on Charity Navigator and 72.4% of the money they raise goes to programs and services. (In addition to funding research, they also provide support services for people with ALS, lead advocacy initiatives and educate the public on the disease. Charity Navigator gives them an accountability and transparency score of 97.00.


    Also the Detroit Free Press today has a story today on ALS research being funded in state by the ALS Association.


  18. Eel
    Posted August 21, 2014 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    It’s not all ego driven. Some people, like 50 Cent, just want to help.


3 Trackbacks

  1. […] challenge is the fact that ALS is a truly horrific disease. As I mentioned a few days ago, in my post about this current fundraising and awareness campaign being waged by the ALS Association, my grandmother suffered from ALS. What I don’t think I mentioned in that post, though, is […]

  2. […] would continue, and that research dollars would begin flowing in for mental health research like they did this summer for ALS. Sadly, though, I haven’t seen much in the mainstream press over the past month. That […]

  3. […] would continue, and that research dollars would begin flowing in for mental health researchlike they did this summer for ALS. Sadly, though, I haven’t seen much in the mainstream press over the past month. That doesn’t […]

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