A little less than two years ago, a phenomenon swept through the world of social media. Thousands of people (myself included) braved freezing water and messed up hair on camera to raise awareness and support for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS),commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. A flurry of celebrities, politicians, and other pop culture icons posted videos that ranged from the simple, “pour a bucket of ice water on your head”, to the advanced, “ice water dropped from a passing helicopter”; the “ice bucket challenge” dominated Facebook and blew up Twitter. The idea was threefold: 1) Post a video of you pouring a bucket of ice water on your head, 2) Send a donation to the ALS research center and, 3) Nominate one or more friends to do the same. It was very much a “pay it forward” concept, the largest we may have ever seen. All told, there were over 10 billion total views of Ice Bucket Challenge related videos.
While many participated, scoffers often questioned the motives of those posting the videos. Were they really donating money? Does celebrity involvement help raise awareness? Was anyone with ALS actually benefiting? As we look back at this unprecedented event in our pop culture/social media history, we will attempt to answer those questions and get a perspective on the Ice Bucket Challenge, now that all the excitement has died down.
In 2013, the ALS Association (ALSA) raised a total of $23.5 million dollars to use for research, patient care, education, and community services. In 2014, the year of the Ice Bucket Challenge, they raised a total of $115 million from 2.5 million different people; $94 million of that coming in over a one month period. I suppose not everyone who participated in the challenge donated money; however, the 2014 funds proved to be greater than the previous six years combined. On top of that, other more localized ALS organizations experienced a spike in donations as well. There was definitely a financial upswing due to this event.
Celebrity participation was instrumental in the large scale success of the Ice Bucket Challenge. Videos from the top 10 celebrity participants garnered over 14 million views in the first four weeks alone. To date, Bill Gates video has over 22 million views; President Obama, Chris Pratt, and Charlie Sheen all have clips with tens of millions of views. The publicity generated exceeded almost every other fund raising event in internet history. Even if only a fraction of the viewers were made aware of ALS, the massive numbers of views suggest that the level of awareness was raised. More people were interested in what ALS actually is and how it affects those afflicted. Some sites reported that unique searches for ALS went up more than 100 times in the period during the challenge.
So where did the money go? Within the ALSA, it was dispensed proportionally as day-to-day fundraising monies are typically distributed. Sixty five percent went straight to research; the rest goes to community outreach and education. Often times in the wake of a tragedy, pop culture icons lead charges to help raise money, support, and awareness for the cause. In these cases, the people see their money at work and can tangibly grasp what their donation will accomplish. For this campaign, tis not the case. It is estimated that more than 34,000 people in the Unites States suffer from ALS and it is by no means a new affliction. The money raised is part of a long term effort that may not be realized for years or even decades, confirming the idea that this was an extremely unique internet phenomenon.
There could be some valid criticisms of the Ice Bucket Challenge. One could argue that celebrities participated as a publicity stunt and politicians were hoping to gain votes. They could say that two years later people don’t remember ALS and never really learned more about the disease than they knew before. Others might point out that they completed the ice bucket challenge again last year and it was a mere blip on the scales compared to the major spike of 2014.
They may have a point. However, there is no validity to any argument that the net affect was overwhelmingly positive. Financially, awareness-wise, and just in sheer goodwill, the Ice Bucket Challenge significantly benefit the cause of helping the fight against ALS. The ultimate legacy, though, will be the fact that it demonstrated the immense power of combining social media and pop culture.