THE ICE BUCKET CHALLENGE IS TURNING EVERYONE INTO A PHILANTHROPIST, ONE WET T-SHIRT AT A TIME. Madeleine Ross EXAMINES THE SOCIAL MEDIA PHENOMENON THAT’S BEEN SATURATING OUR NEWS FEEDS
The ice bucket challenge is turning everyone into a philanthropist
Bill gates did it. Justin Bieber did it. William Louey, Alan Lo and Albert Wong did it. No, it’s not falling in love, it’s the ice bucket challenge, a viral fundraising initiative that has united the young, old, rich, poor, high-art and high-octane in a quest to find a cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease and motor neurone disease.
For those stranded on a desert island for the past three months (not the luxury kind with fresh water and wi-fi), the stunt works like this: an individual is filmed being drenched with icy water, posts the video on social media, donates a sum of money to the ALS Association (ALSA) and nominates a handful of friends to do the same.
The frigid saturation is meant to simulate the feelings of pain and paralysis experienced by patients with ALS, a progressive and fatal neurodegenerative disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. Typical symptoms include muscle weakness, stiffness, cramps, impaired coordination and slurred speech. These quickly progress into difficulty breathing and swallowing. Once a patient’s respiratory muscles become affected, he or she will need mechanical ventilation to stay alive. The disease, which leaves the mind sharp as the body deteriorates, is neither contagious nor hereditary and knows no racial, ethnic or socio-economic boundaries. The death of American baseballer Lou Gehrig from ALS in 1941 brought it to public attention, while physicist Stephen Hawking is perhaps the most prominent living sufferer.
The ice bucket stunt has invaded popular culture to the extent that almost no Facebook or Instagram feed has been left unscathed by the feel-good philanthropic assault. According to the BBC, more than two million ice bucket videos have been posted on Facebook and 28 million people
have uploaded, commented on, or liked ice bucket-related posts. More importantly, its success has translated into cold, hard cash. Through August and early September, the ALSA, a US charity, received more than US$110 million in donations directly from ice bucket challenges. That’s a jaw-dropping contrast to the US$3 million raised last year in a similar timeframe. The ALSA’S British equivalent, the Motor Neurone Disease Association, has also benefited. Whichever way you look at it, the initiative has been a fundraising triumph.
Charities and for-profit groups are now trying to identify the key to the ice bucket challenge’s success and employ it for themselves. Academics, social commentators and marketing brains have been throwing around theories for its success. Forbes columnist Rick Smith puts the stunt’s success down to the concept being selfless and simple. “Selfless ideas inspire action,” he says. Others put it down to the fun of the game. Fashion blogger Sharie Ross-tse says that as well as raising awareness about ALS, the challenge is a fabulous opportunity for family bonding. Shipping and logistics magnate Albert Wong describes it as “good meaningful fun” and a positive activity to do with friends.
Then there’s the rather baser truth that people get a kick out of seeing their friends and, to a greater extent, figures of authority wittingly make fools of themselves. When billionaire Bill Gates (who was nominated by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg) and stony-faced Anna Wintour (nominated by her daughter) let their guard down and submitted to drenchings, our fascination was piqued. The challenge showed the former Microsoft tycoon and the arbiter of taste—and many others—breaking character and sharing human moments with us. The glee we feel from them letting us in inspires us to share that content and continue the trend.
No mega success story, however, is without controversy, and the challenge has certainly attracted its fair share. Some have criticised the stunt as an exercise in narcissism veiled as altruism. Others, like former Baywatch star and animal rights activist Pamela Anderson, refused to participate because the ALSA supports animal testing. The organisation responded by saying tests on rodents provide crucial insights into disease mechanisms and enable the development of therapies, but that such testing is always minimised.
The testing controversy didn’t deter a troop of Hong Kong’s elite from taking on the icy dare. “In reality, a lot of tests are done on animals, which I feel is still better than them being done on humans,” says Kowloon Motor Bus director William Louey. “The methods, however, should be as humane as possible.” Albert Wong, chairman of Eastern Worldwide and a passionate animal-lover, also feels the pros outweigh the cons. “I don’t think it’s fair to
PEOPLE GET A KICK OUT OF SEEING THEIR FRIENDS AND, TO A GREATER EXTENT, FIGURES OF AUTHORITY WITTINGLY MAKE FOOLS OF THEMSELVES
withhold support for the ALS Association because of animal testing,” he says. “The most important thing is that we minimise cruelty towards, and the misuse of, animals while working towards a bigger mission of bettering mankind’s future.”
In drought-stricken California and parts of China the challenge was criticised for wasting clean water. Some US celebrities refused the challenge in favour of water conservation, though environmentalist actor Matt Damon kept all parties happy by doing the challenge with toilet water. In the drought-hit province of Henan, citizens staged a shoot where they raised empty buckets over their heads accompanied by the slogan, “Henan, please say no to the ice bucket challenge.” Some worry that the stunt is cannibalising funding from other deserving causes. The theory goes that people allocate a finite amount of money to charity; in giving more to one, they donate less to others.
The question on everyone’s lips is whether the viral phenomenon will revolutionise fundraising in the long term. It has already spurred a spate of similar stunts. India’s population has thrown its support behind the rice bucket challenge, which encourages people to help alleviate hunger by giving a bucket of rice to someone in need. Then there is Gaza’s rubble bucket challenge, a case of grass-roots activism to raise awareness about life in the war-ravaged Palestinian territory.
Ross-tse, who had her freezing moment in the gym after a spin class, believes the challenge has cemented such gimmicks into the future of fundraising. “Viral challenges are an innovative and extremely successful way to raise awareness for causes that may not directly concern everyone,” says the glamaross.com blogger. She’s probably right, especially when you consider the success of the ice bucket challenge’s precursor, the #nomakeupselfie campaign. A social media challenge that encouraged women to post images of themselves without make-up, it raised US$13 million in six days for Cancer Research UK.
But martial arts expert Wong is sceptical about the formula’s longevity. He suspects too many of the viral challenges will end up boring people and generating negativity. Similarly sceptical is Doug White, director of the Master of Science in Fundraising Management programme at Columbia University. He believes the ice bucket challenge’s success was ultimately due to its novelty. “Charities may get the impression from this challenge that it’s easy to make money if you find a gimmick and get people to do it,” he told Forbes. “But charities need to do more work at maintaining relationships or growing them, since 40 to 50 per cent of new donors don’t come back.”
Whichever way you look at it, the ice bucket challenge has been phenomenally successful in raising funds and bringing to light the suffering of hundreds and thousands condemned to the painful, progressive debilitation and premature death of ALS.
Who knew ice could put the heat back into philanthropy?
dare to drench Martial arts master Albert Wong submits to a soaking at the hands of friend Caroline Roberts at the Hong Kong Country Club
chain reaction From top: Mark Zuckerberg, nominated by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, ices himself, then nominates Bill Gates; Gates drenches himself via a contraption he engineered for the occasion
frosty fun Clockwise from left: Leigh Tung- Chou, Anne WangLiu and Yolanda Choy- Tang; the trio get iced by their children; Alan Lo submits to the dare in the bath; William Louey does it in his tuxedo; Sharie Ross- Tse’s husband Nissim and their children