Ice Bucket Challenge: A Case Study

The Ice Bucket challenge which involves an individual throwing a bucket of water filled with copious amounts of ice cubes over their heads and then nominating friends to also undertake the challenge is one of the largest virtual trends of 2014. Once nominated, the nominee has twenty-four hours to undertake the challenge. There are varying forms of the challenge in circulation, for example, some rules state that ten dollars must be donated if the challenge is carried out, whereas, a hundred dollars should be donated if the nominee refuses to undertake the challenge. The Ice Bucket challenge is an exceptional example of a case study on the success of global viral marketing campaigns. The campaign, also branded as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, is a collaborative participatory video meme that has dominated social media platforms including Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter in its effort to promote awareness and raise funds for ALS.

The origins of The Ice Bucket Challenge are unclear and contested, however, it is generally believed to have derived from Pete Frates, a Boston baseball player, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2012 after injuring his wrist in a baseball game. ALS which stands for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, (known as Motor Neurone Disease in Ireland and the UK), is a progressive neurological disease that affects the motor neurones of both the brain and the spinal cord. Motor neurones reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles in the body. The deterioration of the motor neurones, which control the brain’s ability to initiate and control muscle movement, can affect a patient’s ability to walk, talk, eat and drink. As voluntary muscle action is progressively affected it is possible that patients in the later stages of the disease may become completely paralysed. The disease ultimately results in the patient’s death, although the rate of progression varies from patient to patient (ALS Association, What is ALS?). About two people in every hundred thousand are diagnosed. There are approximately three hundred people living with MND at any one time in Ireland (IMNDA Care and Research).
For a comprehensive insight into how and why the Ice Bucket Challenge originated as a result of Pete Frate’s diagnosis it is highly recommendable to view the inspirational TED Talk given by Pete Frate’s mother.


The most famous photos: Bill Gates Ice Bucket Challenge

Why was the Ice Bucket Challenge so successful?

A range of factors have contributed to the success of the Ice Bucket Challenge. The foremost of which may be summarised to four fundamental factors: The Charity Element, The Challenge, Celebrity Endorsement and Social Media.

1. Charity Element – Donations and A Feel Good Factor

A fundamental aspect of the immense financial success of the campaign is the fact that actually donating money to a charity is a vital part of the challenge. The charity element of the campaign draws on an individual’s desire to aid those less fortunate which in turn produces a “feel good” factor. Likewise, the challenge generates empathy, particularly in the case of Frates whose diagnosis saw a transformation from a young and fit athlete to an individual with very limited mobility. Envisioning a family member experiencing a similar affliction is difficult to conceive, consequently individuals have a desire to contribute. ALS has seen a 3,500% increase from the $2.8 million it raised in the same period last year (Diamond). ALS to date has raised an outstanding $115 million dollars since July of 2014 (ALS Ice Bucket Challenge) with awareness of the disease also significantly increasing.

However, The Ice Bucket Challenge has also been critically received. The campaign has been received unfavourably particularly in connection to the campaign’s association with slacktivism. Slacktivism, may be defined as “a willingness to perform a relatively costless, token display of support for a social cause, with an accompanying lack of willingness to devote significant effort to enact meaningful change” (Kristofferson et al. 1150). Or more simply, slacktivism defines a feel good act that supports social causes, however, the act is only beneficial to the ego of the participant whilst tending to require nominal effort from said participant (Wikipedia, “Slacktivism”). If participants are contributing to a cause as a result of a desire for a “feel-good” factor or for a desire to maintain one’s ego and online social presence, then it is unlikely that the participant will obtain fundamental information concerning the charity they are donating to, such as, where research funds are allocated and how funds are to be distributed? Another critique of The Ice Bucket Challenge which must be taken into consideration is the sheer volume of water that has been wasted at a time when California is on the verge of an epic drought and when up to a billion people around the world do not have access to safe drinking water (Goldenberg). For an insight into the negative connotations of the campaign Ben Kosinski’s article “#IceBucketChallenge: Why You’re Not Really Helping” is insightful.

2. The Challenge

The Ice Bucket Challenge is an excellent example of a successful viral peer-to-peer fundraising campaign. A vital component of the success of the campaign is the motivation and involvement of a challenge. The challenge element of the campaign attracts a fundamental aspect of human behaviour; the desire to undertake and complete a challenge and the need to respond to a provocation or taunt. Consequently there is a strong element of peer pressure and social proof, which is a “psychological phenomenon where people assume the actions of others in an attempt to reflect correct behaviour for a given situation” (“Social Proof”) , attached to the campaign.

3. Celebrity Endorsement

An important component which undoubtedly contributed to the viral success of the Ice Bucket Challenge was the great number of celebrity participants which partook in the challenge. It is important to note that the ALS organisation did not start the campaign themselves. The campaign was initiated by Pete Frates, by challenging the NFL Quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Tom Brady to undertake the challenge. From A-list to Z-list celebrities, there were few who did not participate, including Oprah, Kim Kardashian, David Beckham, Jennifer Aniston, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and so forth. For a selection of entertaining videos, please visit “The 60 Best Celebrity Ice Bucket Challenge Videos.” Society is currently obsessed with celebrities, with celebrity culture in Western societies now outperforming organised religion in the sheer volume of numbers that it attracts (Rojek 1). The contribution of celebrities to the cause undoubtedly attracted and enticed participants to the cause while simultaneously providing free publicity on a global scale.

Note – A wide range of educational institutions also elected to undertake the challenge, with University College Cork’s own President Dr Michael Murphy electing to contribute to the cause.

4. Social Media

Social media platforms have become an integrated part of everyday life. People use social media platforms, such as Facebook, for a range of activities including entertainment, sharing, information exchange, endorsements and communication. Facebook is one of the most popular social media platforms, with over 1.35 billion monthly users as of September 30th, 2014 (Facebook Company Info). Therefore, Facebook is ideal for viral marketing campaigns, not just in terms of the large audience it attracts, but also due to the diversity of the age groups it engages. The Ice Bucket challenge is a clear example of how charities, such as ALS, can utilise Facebook in order to raise essential funds while simultaneously prompting awareness.

The Facebook Data team analysed the viral activity on the platform from the first of June to the seventh of August of this year and found that over twenty-eight million people around the globe have joined the conversion about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge since the phenomenon has gone viral; the data includes liking, posting and commenting on a post. Furthermore, over 2.4 million videos related to the ice bucket challenge have been posted on Facebook (The Ice Bucket Challenge on Facebook).

The below maps composed by the Facebook data team display the rapid spread of the virtual video meme in the United States:

– Each line represents at least 10 connections between nominators and nominees for the challenge from June 1 – August 13.

Another consideration in the success of the campaign is the current widespread use of the mobile phone, with social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube now available on android and iPhones, participating in the Ice Bucket Challenge could not be easier. Nominees are notified within a matter of seconds and participants of the challenge can easily record their video, post it online and nominate friends within a matter of moments.

Furthermore, the rapid online growth and sharing of the challenge videos may be classified as an Internet meme. Internet memes are phenomena, including: media, activities and concepts that rapidly gain popularity on the Internet, they are often modified or parodied which contribute to their popularity and therefore have the power to transgress social and cultural boundaries (Bauckhage 42). Examining Bauckhage’s definition the Ice Bucket challenge certainly fits the classification. For information on the role of the campaign as an internet meme, Kyle Chayka’s article, “The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money” is informative.

The Ice Bucket Challenge is undoubtedly one of the most successful viral social media campaign, ALS has seen a huge increase in awareness due to social media platforms and networks on the Internet. Social media as exemplified by the Ice Bucket Challenge is a powerful method to gather, share and spread information and data online on a wide encompassing global scale. The challenge is an exemplary case of how social media platforms and digital tools may be utilised as a means to launch a global viral marketing campaign.