The Perfect Viral Storm

  • by August 20, 2014

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.


10 comments about "The Perfect Viral Storm".
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  1. Nancy Thomas from Tapestry Communications, August 20, 2014 at 7:07 p.m.

    I have had the joy and honor of supporting the ALS Association of Massachusetts, as a PR consultant, for the past few years. The #ALSIceBucketChallenge has been amazing - challenging how many RTs and comments can be made at one sitting...because we thank everyone and let them know each individual act and donation are part of a strong Team ALS. As this program has evolved, it feels as though ALS had a fundraiser and the whole world came to it. Donations are going over $32 million nationally, with no end in sight. Imagine if social media could find a cure or a great inroad into ALS? Imagine.... And in many ways, that is what this extraordinary event has been all about. I totally agree with the comment that this world is experienced such a plethora of horror - it's as if we want to throw a bucket of ice over us all and have a brand new start. Happy Summer. Happy ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

  2. Twilla Duncan from Duncan Produces, August 20, 2014 at 7:38 p.m.

    I so agree, Barbara. Thank you for conveying the spirit of giving.

  3. David Kleeman from Dubit, August 20, 2014 at 8:27 p.m.

    As always, a great capsule of insight into a current topic. But, to go back to last week's MadBlog, "shark, meet Fonzie; Fonzie, shark." I love what this has done for ALS research, but now that I've seen Kermit the Frog and Cookie Monster douse themselves, plus countless little kids (did Mom and Dad have to donate for each kid, or is there a family plan?), I feel like it's in danger of kicking the bucket.

    I've also already seen other charities try to launch their own viral stunt - too soon, too obvious, too desperate.

  4. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, August 20, 2014 at 9:02 p.m.

    "...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." IT'S GREAT TO SEE CRAZY IDEAS THAT ARE ALSO EFFECTIVE IDEAS. I HAVE TO ADMIT I NEVER WOULD HAVE BELIEVED IN THE POTENTIAL EFFICACY OF THAT IDEA.

  5. David Grubb from Media Solutions factory, August 21, 2014 at 9:02 a.m.

    Ice Bucket, as mentioned- a great (but simple) idea @ the right time. While tempting to invest energy & resources to continue momentum, it would be very powerful for the ALS Association to quantify/ specify how (to date) a 16X increase in revenue will accelerate the mission:

    OUR MISSION: Leading the fight to treat and cure ALS through global research and nationwide advocacy while also empowering people with Lou Gehrig's Disease and their families to live fuller lives by providing them with compassionate care and support.

    Most organizations have 3-5 year plans- based on expected revenue. These plans are, by necessity gated and paced by funding. Understanding how the amazing influx of "next dollars in" will power, speed, enhance the mission is a logical next step. It is rare that an organization can push into the BOLD, AGGRESSIVE part of the business plan & it would be powerful to communicate what this looks like.

    Link the Ice Bucket lottery win to impact & accelerated progress. I think that is the path to continued momentum.

  6. Nina Lentini from MediaPost Communications, August 21, 2014 at 9:03 a.m.

    The timing, between the end of camp and beginning of school, was spot on, as you so correctly pointed out. End of story.

  7. Deirdre Drohan Forbes from Catlife Photography, August 21, 2014 at 7:39 p.m.

    I apparently have been living under a rock the past few weeks and only yesterday wondered why I was seeing photos on the side of web pages I was viewing of people having ice buckets dumped on their heads, including George W. Bush no less. But none of the photos I viewed could bring me to click on on through, fearful it had something to do with a frat party. So thank you Barbara for putting it all together in a clear and thoughtful way.

  8. Barbara Lippert from, August 21, 2014 at 8:12 p.m.

    There is a dark side-- one of the co-founders actually died last week in a diving accident. Yikes-- cruel irony. And there are a host of Ice Bucket Challenge-FAIL videos, which have the same appeal as "America's Funniest VIdeos." We apparently love to see people injuring themselves. And one of the internet memes that has become popular, applied to everyone from Ann Coulter to Nancy Pelosi, is to post a photo of the clothing and signature hat of the Wicked Witch
    of the West melted into the floor, the result of taking the challenge.

  9. Jim English from The Met Museum, August 23, 2014 at 5:29 p.m.

    A worthy cause indeed. In 2003 The Lou Gehrig Sports Award Benefit at Marriott Marquis raised about $1 million for ALS. With over 8 times that much in a single day, the Bucket's got them beat.

  10. Barbara Lippert from, August 27, 2014 at 11:21 a.m.

    Here's a wonder:

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