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The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is the perfect meme

I am amazed how many naysayers — haters — the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has had, especially in the PR, marketing, social media, advertising and nonprofit world.

The challenge has less to do with raising money — which it has done in spades to the tune of $79.7 million — than it has to do with becoming the biggest sensation of the entire summer. It’s become truly viral, ubiquitous, and effectively bringing a relatively obscure, rare, and under-researched disease–amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which effects between 10,000-30,000 people–into global focus and universal issue awareness.  The tertiary effect was the money. The first was catching fire and the second was brand awareness. Without catching fire — becoming a meme, becoming viral — ALS would be where too many nonprofit organizations are: begging for money using persistence, direct mail, and the rule of seven touches.

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is the perfect mind virus. It harnesses the gravity of quite a few mortal sins to propel the ALS Association into deep interstellar space:

  • Lust — I get to see all sorts of people I know, from friends and people I work with to cheerleaders, celebrities, starlets, and even Lindsay Lohan get doused with cold water
  • Gluttony — I don’t actually have to participate in the Ice Bucket Challenge even if I am nominated, I can just sit here and donate my $100 and be done with it.
  • Greed — I don’t want to part with my $100, so I will surely do the Ice Bucket Challenge
  • Sloth — In order to participate in this global event, all I need to do is pour ice water over my head and videotape it? I don’t need to actually go anywhere or do anything?
  • Wrath — If I don’t accept the challenge, people will be angry with me; if people I nominate don’t take the challenge, I will be a vengeful god and smite them in jeers.
  • Envy — I wish someone would nominate me!
  • Pride — Look at me! This is why I have been getting up at 5 to run and go to the gym — totally worth it! Thank you, ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

According to Wikipedia, the Ice Bucket Challenge is an activity involving dumping a bucket of ice water on someone’s head to promote awareness of the disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and encourage donations to research. The challenge dares nominated participants to be filmed having a bucket of ice water poured on their heads and challenging three others to do the same. A common stipulation is that nominated people have 24 hours to comply or forfeit by way of a charitable financial donation.

The Hook

Even if you’re never nominated, never commit to either dousing yourself in ice water, or end up writing a concession check to ALS, seeing someone you know, someone you know of, someone you’d like to know, someone you’d like to look at wet, someone you detest, as well as all the celebrities who pervade our lives being doused — or dousing themselves — with a big bucket of ice water is pretty compelling. The hook of this meme, this viral, this particular “chain letter” scheme has helped it do more for the name recognition of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) since 1939 when New York Yankee and baseball great Lou Gehrig’s fell to the disease, making ALS the year’s cause célèbre.

And no matter how jarring or temporarily unpleasant the act of dousing yourself with ice water — actually, a bucket of water with possibly bags of ice thrown in — is a laugh. This entire event is titillating, exhilarating, fun, and funny. There is no downside to any of this, it’s perfectly harmless. Unlike a chain letter, there’s no threat to life or limb and the only thing you lose by not acting one way or the other within 24-hours of being nominated is face.

The Threat and Request

If you don’t accept the challenge after being nominated by someone else who called you out in their Ice Bucket Challenge video — taking a video of yourself dousing yourself with ice water — you’ll need to write a $100 check to the ALS Association.

In order to avoid making that compulsory $100 donation to the ALS Association and the shame of shirking the challenge, you’re required to make your very own Ice Bucket Challenge video and then nominate three more people — all within 24 hours of being nominated.

Perpetuating Challenge Not Writing the Check

The $100 donation is the least important part of the scheme. The most important part of the campaign is its self-perpetuation through the call out. Even if the majority of the self-dousers who videoed and posted the event didn’t donate $100 anyway (something that was perfectly within their right), the money wasn’t the goal.

In fact, if everyone who was called out took the donation option instead of the video, then the entire campaign would  have quickly died instead of becoming a global phenomenon.  And remember, too, that the video was shared, too, on Vine, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, message board, forums, the news, TV, radio, late night talk shows, and probably even reddit.

Beautiful People Doused in Water

And it isn’t by mistake that the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is a summertime meme, either, because who doesn’t want to douse their hot, sticky, dog days of summer body with ice water?  And, naturally, such an exhibition taps our vanity as well as our voyeurism.

We want to see people do crazy things for good causes, sure, but we also like to see attractive people do sexy things. Summer bodies, CrossFit obsessions, light summer clothing, tanned skin, topped off with a big bucket of ice water! What a compelling combination, right?

Never have more people been all-consumed with working out.   There’s a national obsession with all sorts of hyper-athletics, including obstacle runs, CrossFit, marathons, triathalons, yoga, spinning, pilates, and even tennis, swimming, and whatever SoulCycle is. There are a lot of people who are body-proud right now — the timing for the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge couldn’t be more perfect.

ALS Ice Bucket Challenge benefited from beauty, youth, and celebrity.  As the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge evolved, mutated, and bubbled up from being a grassroots campaign into a major national event, the challenge went from being something that happened in backyards under big plastic pails between friends who had been tapped and who were happy to tap others — yards that looked modest enough that $100 might be a lot of money, encouraging quite a few to want to accept the Ice Bucket Challenge in lieu of writing the check — into a pissing match between Silicon Valley billionaires, A-List celebrities, and Politicos, where money is no object, checks could — and should — very well exceed $100, and where youth, beauty, body, wealth, celebrity, and surely publicity can really amplify and accelerate the meme, the campaign, the cultural virus, into the stratosphere!

Even better, it’s pretty easy to sneak into the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge even if you’re not called out. Just record a video, don’t mention anything about who called you out, and then proceed to nominate other people. It’s pretty easy to just jump in there and join the party — there’s a very low barrier to entry when it comes to this meme.

Why Not Just Donate

One of the criticisms is that there is more of an incentive to dump water on your head than there is to write the check. Of course.  The whole reason why this campaign worked is because it perpetuated the virus, perpetuated the meme. In the viral sciences, it is essential for the life of the virus that there are both carriers and well as sufferers. The same goes for memetics. A meme, or mind virus, demands that the patient not “die” before the “virus” has an opportunity to pass itself on to one or more other victims. If the ALS Ice Bucket challenge had made the donation too low, such as $10, it wouldn’t have worked. The biggest incentive needed to be inconveniencing oneself.

But What About the Environment?

If you never take long showers, haven’t used your air conditioning, don’t own or haven’t used a pool all summer, don’t water your lawn, don’t buy plastic water bottles, don’t live in a detached house, don’t commute in the morning, and don’t eat meat, then you can take it one step further and respect the environment even more extremely and vigorously and forgo the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge — but that does demand that you write the $100 check because that’s not the challenge! Icy lake water isn’t ice water. Neither is upending empty blue recycling receptacles over each other’s heads. #lame. It might be funny, different, and thinking outside the bucket, but please either write that check or do it correctly — and for heaven’s sake, please don’t forget to nominate someone before you’re done otherwise this successful branding and fundraising meme will shrivel up and die a little bit by the end of your video.

The Humble Chain Letter

Chain letters have been doing this for hundreds of years. According to Wikipedia, “a typical chain letter consists of a message that attempts to convince the recipient to make a number of copies of the letter and then pass them on to as many recipients as possible. Common methods used in chain letters include emotionally manipulative stories, get-rich-quickly pyramid schemes, and the exploitation of superstition to threaten the recipient with bad luck or even physical violence or death if he or she “breaks the chain” and refuses to adhere to the conditions set out in the letter. Chain letters started as actual letters that one received in the mail. Today, chain letters are generally no longer actual letters. They are sent through email messages, postings on social network sites, and text messages.”

Can There Be a Repeat Performance?

No. And Maybe. Any future Ice Bucket Challenge will be a shadow of this summer’s glory, surely, but the success of the 2014 ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was unprecedented.  Instead of making $1.7 million like normal the ice bucket donations reached at least $79.7 million during the same time period. Does ALS need to make $80 million dollars every year in order for the meme to be dusted off every summer, when giving is at a slump anyway?

My girlfriend and I have been chatting about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and wondering if it really can only happen one time as many have said. I thought so at first. If the ALS Association is smart, however, they’ll make the Ice Bucket Challenge their yearly go to, turn it into their own personal Red Nose Day or Poppy Day of Remembrance.

More news about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge from the ALS Association:

(Thanks to the attorneys at Price Benowitz LLP for their help in developing this page)

Feel free to email me at or call me at +1 202-351-1235

Learn more about Chris Abraham at Gerris digital.

Chris Abraham

Chris Abraham, digital strategist and technologist, is a leading expert in digital: search engine optimization (SEO), online relationship management (ORM), Internet privacy, Wikipedia curationsocial media strategy, and online public relations with a focus on blogger outreachinfluencer engagement, and Internet crisis response, with the digital PR and social media marketing agency Gerris digital. [Feel free to self-schedule a 15-minute call, a 30-minute call, or a 60-minute call with me] A pioneer in online social networks and publishing, with a natural facility for anticipating the next big thing, Chris is an Internet analyst, web strategy consultant and adviser to the industries' leading firms. Chris Abraham specializes in web technologies, including content marketing, online collaboration, blogging, and consumer generated media.  Chris Abraham was named a Top 50 Social Media Power Influencer by Forbes, #1 PR2.0 Influencer by Traackr, and top-10 social media influencers by Marketwire; and, for what it’s worth, Chris has a Klout of 79 the last time he looked. Chris Abraham started doing web development back in 1994, SEO in 1998, blogging in 1999, influencer engagement in 2003, social media strategy in 2005, blogger outreach in 2006, and Wikipedia curation in 2007. Feel free to self-schedule a 15-minute call, a 30-minute call, or a 60-minute call. If you want to know the services that Chris offers check out Services If you want to work with Chris use the Contact Form You're welcome to follow me via Social Media You can learn more about Chris over in About Chris writes a lot so check out the Blog Chris offers webinars so check Events

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