A Marketer’s Defense of the Ice Bucket Challenge

“When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news.” — Alfred Harmsworth,

The  Ice Bucket Backlash is now underway.

After several weeks of viral videos and millions of dollars raised, my Facebook  news feed (and likely, yours too) is now filled with people questioning the wisdom and appropriateness of the campaign.

The hip-hop group De La Soul posted a photo on their Facebook page  asking a simple question:

De La Soul


Recently Will Oremus of the Chicago Tribune, under the headline “Say ‘No!’ to the Ice Bucket Challenge (registration required to read the full article) noted that the original Ice Bucket Challenge had nothing to do with the ALS Association, and had this to say:

…I’m proposing what is sure to be an unpopular alternative to the #IceBucketChallenge. It’s called the no ice bucket challenge, and it works like this:

1. Do not fetch a bucket, fill it with ice or dump it on your head.

2. Do not film yourself or post anything on social media.

3. Just donate the damn money, whether to the ALS Association or to some other charity of your choice.

My take? I’m willing to concede, without doing any research, every fact he cites in his column.

The possibility exists the origin story put forth by the ALS Association is at least somewhat fictional, and that the Ice Bucket Challenge does not “belong” to the ALS Association or anyone else, for that matter.

We are all capable of making a donation to ALS or any other charity without using ice water, a video camera, or anyone else.

Having conceded all that, I believe that Oremus’ conclusion is wrong. As a marketing program, the ALS version of the Ice Bucket Challenge is superb.

  • It is distinctive – different from any other charity fundraising campaign out there.
  • It is a great example of Cialdini’s example of “social proof” as a persuasion technique – all of our friends are doing it and posting video on Facebook. We’d better do it too if we want to be accepted by the group.
  • It gives people distinctive instructions: dump a bucket of ice water on your head, or donate $100 to ALS. Not everybody fully understands the instructions — I’m sure there are lots of people dumping ice water on their heads without making donations. That’s okay. Most people get it.
  • It has raised public awareness about the effects of a horrible disease. Not everybody who posted a challenge video talked about this, but the donors to ALS are going to get plenty of mail from the Association, and that will educate at least some of them.
  • And finally, it’s worked. A of August 27, it has raised more than $88 million for the ALS Association — much, much more than the Association is used to receiving from the regular donors.

Yes, it’s possible to donate to the charity of your choice, and ask anybody else to donate, without using an ice bucket. That’s “Dog Bites Man”. by incorporating a simple bucket of ice water, the ALS Association has gotten the man to bite the dog, to the tune of $88 million. Bravo.


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