Cynics pour cold water on ice bucket challenge

Making a splash: The ice bucket challenge has been a phenomenal success, but at what cost?

Social media has been flooded in recent weeks with videos of friends and celebrities dousing themselves in icy water. The challenge is for charity, but has it done more harm than good?

For those who hate being cold and wet, this August would have been a good time to stay away from social media. Facebook feeds were awash with videos of people throwing buckets of icy water over their heads, screaming, and challenging their friends to do the same. Everyone seemed to be involved, from classmates to celebrities to Kermit the Frog.

The summer fun of the ‘#icebucketchallenge’ was in aid of a serious cause. It was started by the ALS Association, a charity that helps the 140,000 people around the world who are suffering from the incurable motor neurone disease.

The ice bucket challenge was supposed to be a forfeit for not donating to the charity, though many of those who were drenched donated as well. The campaign was a phenomenal success, raising £68m for ALSA. YouTube says ice bucket challenge videos have now been watched over a billion times.

ALSA is ecstatic at the exposure and the money raised, yet critics worry that the challenge’s purpose has been forgotten in all the excitement. They say many people were more interested in the dare than donating, and often challenge videos failed to mention the charity at all.

Another criticism is that celebrities who took part raised as much publicity for themselves as for charity. The media were often complicit. A headline in The Sun focused more on one pop star’s stomach than her generosity: ‘Nicole Scherzinger takes ice bucket challenge and shows off super-abs at the same time’.

Yet the most damning criticism comes from charity activists, who say that donations to ALS have come at the expense of donations elsewhere. Research suggests people only have a certain amount they are willing to give. This is known as ‘funding cannibalism’ and other charities will lose out because of the challenge’s success.

While motor neurone disease is terrible, other charities combat illnesses that affect far more lives. For example, the World Health Organisation estimates that malaria affects 287m worldwide, but a mosquito net to protect a family for a year costs just $3.

Ice bucket challenged

Some people say that while the ice bucket challenge raised lots of money, too many people failed to realise what it was for. Like the ‘#nomakeupselfie’ campaign before it, the fun part overwhelmed the purpose. And while ALSA may have benefited, the campaign will have done other charities more harm than good.

Yet others say that anything that raises a charity’s profile can only be a good thing. The campaign will teach people that raising money for charity can be rewarding but also fun. The critics are just being overly cynical: while the challenge might have become the ‘cool’ thing to do, it was still the right thing to do.

You Decide

  1. Do you think the majority of people who did the ice bucket challenge did it for the right reasons?
  2. ‘Any publicity is good publicity.’ Do you agree?


  1. In groups, pretend you work for a charity and come up with a new viral awareness campaign similar to the ice bucket challenge. Choose your three best ideas and share them with the class.
  2. Using the BBC article and the link to the ALS website in ‘Become an Expert’, write a short summary explaining what motor neurone disease and the other two diseases mentioned are, with summaries of their effects.

Some People Say...

“There is no such thing as a selfless act.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I enjoyed the ice bucket challenge!
There’s nothing wrong with having enjoyed it, but critics are more concerned at evaluating the campaign’s success in raising awareness for ASL and its impact on other charities. With other viral campaigns likely to follow in coming years, they say it is important to think about how and why they work, and whether the message is being lost in the fun.
Did people really lose sight of the charity element?
Many people who undertook the challenge also donated and many chose their own preferred charity to donate to. While some celebrities seem to have missed the point (pop singer Olly Murs Tweeted asking someone to nominate him because he was ‘well up’ for it), others gave large sums of money. People taking part ranged from Bill Gates to David Beckham.

Word Watch

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is what motor neurone disease is known in the US. It is also called Lou Gehrig’s disease.
The disease usually develops in people aged 40 to 70 and affects the nerves in the brain and the spine. Sufferers become paralysed and die within 3 to 5 years. While horrific, compared to other diseases, motor neurone disease is rare.
To put this success in perspective, ALSA received just £24m in the whole of last year.
The charity association Give What You Can estimates that for every £1 raised by a campaign like the ice bucket challenge, a person would have donated 50p of it to a different charity anyway. It says people are only willing to give charities a certain amount, so a donation to one charity eats into funds that would have gone to another.
This campaign for Cancer Research UK had people post pictures of themselves without makeup to social media while donating. It raised £8m, but critics say the people taking part were doing so more out of vanity than out of a charitable impulse.

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