Did Social Media Ruin The Ice Bucket Challenge?

Most people on social media now fall into two camps when it comes to the latest viral craze: either you loathe it for consuming your news feeds or you think it’s the most fun you’ve had in years, it’s what the internet was made for.

ice bucket meme

(I’m in camp one by the way, but only because I work with the theory behind this stuff, and because it’s turned into a “who has the most famous friends” contest among celebrities. That said, I’m not below taking pleasure in people like Victoria Beckham or George W. Bush being knocked off their high horses by a freezing cold bucket of wet stuff! I also enjoyed Chris Hemsworth’s wet abs. ‘Nuff said.)

Originally, I wasn’t going to write about it. Not because it hasn’t been successful, but because it seemed like just another stunt in a long line of viral charity promotions, all of which tend to follow the same trends, rules and lifespan.

What makes the #IceBucketChallenge so interesting is both its acceptance among the social elite, i.e. celebrities and the current furore around its inception and subsequent ‘hijacking’ by charities.

To date last week, the craze had raised £13.8 million for the ALS Association – an American charity working to fight Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), known here in the UK and Ireland as Motor Neurone Disease (MND).

Articles like this Slate one give an interesting background to the global phenomenon, describing how it may have actually been hijacked by a charity in the first instance, with US celeb participants such as Matt Lauer and Martha Stewart’s videos, predateding the acclaimed instigator Pete Frates, a 29-year-old former baseball player who was diagnosed with ALS in 2012. Commentators now claim it originated from a dare that was circulating among a group of professional athletes. Those who declined the ice bath had to donate $100 to a charity of the challenger’s choice.

Whoever invented it, the fact remains that the ALS Association did a great job in the first few weeks of ensuring they piggybacked on the awareness raising opportunity, with many celebrities quoting the charity in their nominations. The problem still remained though – were people only donating when they “chickened out”, in which case, it wouldn’t make for a great fundraising ploy.

Cancer Research selfies trend statement

As with the #NoMakeUpSelfie craze earlier this year, charities didn’t invent it but they have successfully used social media to drive it for their own gain. We don’t mind this, as a general rule, because we appreciate the voluntary sector’s need to do it.

What people haven’t appreciated is the crossover that has appeared in recent weeks, most notably from cancer charities, who have ‘hijacked’ or ‘borrowed’ the phenomenon’s hashtag (depending on how hostile you feel about it). This has caused particular issues here in Northern Ireland because of the vast difference in size and resources between our local branch of the American charity – MNDA Northern Ireland (@MNDA_NI on Twitter) – who were trying to get a hold on local participation against much larger charities such as Macmillan Cancer, who appeared a lot more in my own timelines with promoted tweets, screenshots of their easy-to-use high-tech text fundraising services and Vine videos. MNDA also have these services they just clearly lacked the same resources, whether staff time, skill or budget, to pump their message out in the same way.

This has resulted in Macmillan raising a very healthy sum through the challenge, which they seem to have started using sometime at the beginning of the Summer:

MacMillan Vine

I would bet MNDA NI haven’t reached anywhere near that amount. But is that because less people are affected by that disease. Even so, does that make it wrong? There are ethical issues involved and creative people will lament you with their woes of “intellectual property” and the stealing of ideas. In the age of the internet, however, does anyone really ‘own’ a hashtag?

MacMillan Defence Tweet

Zoe Amar (@zoeamar), who runs her own Marketing and Digital Consultancy in the UK and also blogs regularly for The Guardian on Voluntary Sector issues, circulated a great piece for the paper written by Kirsty Marrins (@LondonKirsty), the Content and Community Manager for Justgiving. It discussed concerns among the Third Sector over whether it is OK for a charity to take the focus, and quite possibly donations, from another cause or organisation.

My personal opinion? Well I work for a charity. Trust me, you will not find a greater level of “bitchiness” anywhere than you will among the tree-hugging, cardigan-wearing, change-the-worldies of the Third Sector. But it is a sibling kind of rivalry, we’re all working for the same thing really. I am slightly uncomfortable with a large charity competing against a much smaller, more obscure one, though. I would have liked to have seen ALS and MNDA keep ownership of the campaign. However, I recognise that it’s easy to assume larger charities with bigger budgets don’t need the money. When in actual fact they tend to be climbing bigger mountains, fighting more common illnesses which thus affect significantly higher numbers of people, so they need more to help more. And it seems that Macmillan’s supporters had already latched on to the trend themselves so what other choice did they have but to go with it?

Kermit Ice Bucket Challenge

As for me and the Ice Bucket Challenge. I have managed to evade nomination. And even if I was nominated, I wouldn’t do it. I’d simply donate (MNDA NI have a Justgiving page here). Not because I’m a spoilt sport, but because I recognise these campaigns for what they are, a borderline human desire between attention hunger and a genuine thirst to be a part of a global movement.

I’m also stubborn and no one dares me to do anything but me.

With that in mind, I’m off now to work on my own dare, an 80,000 word novel in a month.

One week in, 23,000 words down…

P.S. You can donate to the NI Branch online or by text:
Text AMND99 £2/£5/£10 to 70070
AMND99 £5


  1. As someone with a cousin who passed away from Motor Neurone Disease the hijacking of the ice bucket challenge is a little heartbreaking, knowing just how much any money at all raised for this cause is needed and valued.

    Arguably it’s a movement and where people wish to donate to a good cause they shouldn’t be criticized but what we need to remember is that MND was at one time so under resourced, certainly when David was battling it.

    So little was known about it due to the numbers being quite small. Little to no funding went towards researching it except that raised directly by the MND charity itself. Therefore I would encourage everyone to watch this clip to get a greater understanding of just what exactly it is and the impact it has on lives:- http://www.upworthy.com/the-last-ice-bucket-challenge-you-need-to-see-and-you-really-should-see-it?g=2&c=ufb1

    Here’s also a little more about David & his last few weeks with us:- http://www.colerainetimes.co.uk/news/local-news/david-s-legacy-remembering-his-courage-and-sense-of-fun-1-1962629

    • Thanks for sharing. I hope my contribution to the online debate shows that it may often be more important to sit-out a craze and support our lesser known voluntary sector comms colleagues when they finally gain some media space, than to confuse the issue for the public just because viral ideas don’t come with Copyright. There’s room for everyone online and we should certainly make room for such an important cause.


  2. Great post Leanne. I think charities, and indeed businesses, have a great opportunity to get in on modern viral trends as long as they are relevant to them. While some charities have been successful at raising money on the back of this campaign, so many charities struggle with going beyond ‘like and shares’ and actually using social media to increase support and donations.

    • Thanks Paul. It’s difficult for me to criticise anyone as I haven’t piggybacked any viral trends during my time in NI charities, but it’s great to watch it play out and be able to weigh up the pros and cons in advance of taking a risk like that ourselves!

  3. […] Last year I lamented the rise and fall of the Ice Bucket Challenge, one of the greatest viral phenomenons of our time, but not without its own challenges. From critique of its monetary value for ALS/MND, to confusion over charity ownership of the craze, it came and went like all great viral hits do. […]

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