You’ve no doubt heard about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. With its incredible success and somewhat annoying ubiquity, you’d think it would have kicked the you-know-what by now and been left in the dust by some other, hotter, social media trend.
But this ice bucket thing sure has legs (To use a phrase perhaps better suited for the Kool-Aid Pitcher.) And it’s not going anywhere.
Indeed, according to tallies updated daily by the ALS Association on its Web site, Wednesday, August 19 was the most profitable day of fund raising yet, with $8.6 million received to make a total of $31. 5 million since July 29. That’s more than 16 times the amount the association received in the same period last year.
And that victory can’t all be attributed to the Niagara of endless cold-water-puns that flow so easily for the media covering it. Rather, there’s genius at its core. Let us count the ways:
Love it or hate it, it’s for a good cause, so you can feel smug either way. Either take the challenge, and in turn acknowledge the person who challenged you and challenge others, which allows you to strategize in your career or social groups, nominating three more people who can help you. Or, show others that you are smart, famous and connected. Finally, you can use it to extract pay back. Oh, right, and raise awareness.
On the other hand, if you think it’s stupid, and wasteful of water when California is having a terrible drought, and also ruins a good hair cut or blow out for no reason, you can write a check for $100 and avoid the sop. And yes, the whole gets dumped on or pay thing is a bit counter-intuitive. You don’t want people to learn to do something outrageous to get out of contributing to charity.
But with the flood of celebrities coming into it — and with Charlie Sheen actually doing something right and dumping $10,000 in to the cause — the rules have morphed into doing the challenge and paying.
1) There are various stories floating around about its origins. But the challenge didn't achieve true virality until ALS sufferer Pete Frates in Boston picked up the mantel. His affecting story spread to his local communities, the sports community, and his friends.
2) It happened to come along at a time of unalloyed horror, both locally and in the world. (And I don’t use that word lightly.) Amid the crippling news of Robin Williams’ suicide, the awful situation in Ferguson, Missouri, the unspeakable beheading by ISIS, war in the Mideast and an outbreak of Ebola in Africa, over which we are obviously powerless, this allows us one small act that can help us feel part of a nobler human race. Lower down to the ground, it shows you’re a good sport and will even endure momentary pain for a good cause. It also allows for an important family conversation and a fun activity at a time between the end of camp and the start of school.
3) My favorite videos were the the simplest ones, involving a backyard, a driveway, or a local park, a parent or two, and a kid who could lift a bucket full of ice. (Which is a lot harder than it sounds.) Some of the kids were very funny. The grownups who were self-dousers — with little kids shrieking behind them in glee — worked well too. Because, after all, how many opportunities do kids get to wallop — or see their parents walloped — on camera? Though it entails some technology to record and share the video, the challenge requires only two of the lowest tech tools that have been around since the late 19th century: ice and a bucket. Symbolizing life, birth, cleansing and satiety, pools of water are irresistible. That’s why most county fairs come with dunking booths, and why cities set up sprinklers for kids in hot weather.
But at the same time, the challenge also feeds brilliantly into the social media need for narcissistic preening.
Whole companies could line up workers in their logo T-shirts and show what camaraderie and solidarity they feel in the trenches, so to speak. Also, what jolly, good souls the bosses are. (I have to say I really enjoyed Bill Gates’ video. It’s perfect that he engineered an involved Rube Goldberg-like bucket drop and wore gray pants and a buttoned down, long-sleeve shirt to get poured on. And didn’t even flinch. Zuckerberg was a perfect borg and didn’t flinch either. Nor did Martha Stewart, but she did shimmy.)
Meanwhile, while collecting likes and retweets, the individual soakers could flatter themselves by getting involved in a vanity project while outwardly showing no vanity at all. You mean me have an ego? Are you kidding—I’m in my schlumpiest clothes with my hair all wet! (Although Kathie Lee Gifford did hers in her elaborately spa-like bathtub, apparently in the nude.)
So you can feel superior for any number of reasons.
Most importantly, ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Eventually, people with ALS lose the ability to initiate and control muscle movement, which often leads to total paralysis and death within two to five years of diagnosis. It’s a terrible, terrible disease, that deserves all of this sudden spotlight and money for research.
I also like the fact that the ALS Association provides a number of services for those with the disease, in addition to funding research.
But speaking of narcissism, for the record, I gave a contribution without doing the video. I was nominated, and thought —or, more characteristically, overthought — about it. I worried I’d have a heart attack — you think Woody Allen is a hypochondriac! But mostly, I was concerned that by posting the video, I’d only collect a bunch of pity likes.
Seriously, this is a wonderful example of movement marketing, a no-lose idea that came along in the right place at the right time. Putin, your turn.