Alice, a typical American teenager, wakes up one morning, fills a bucket with ice, asks her brother to film her as she dumps the ice on her head, and then uploads the video to Facebook. Why? For charity, more or less.
Alice was one of 17,000 participants in the ALS ice bucket challenge, a viral, video-based campaign that raised money for ALS research during the summer of 2014. Participants filmed and shared videos on social media (usually Facebook), and in doing so, decreased or eliminated an expected donation to ALS research (usually through the ALS Association.) The short videos followed a set format: participants accepted the challenge, nominated three friends, and closed by dumping buckets of ice over their heads. It’s unclear how the campaign became ALS-specific, as the ALS Association did not initiate it, and the structure of the videos did not require any mention of the cause.
Influence Tactics Used
The Principle of Social Proof
The campaign’s presence on popular social media site, Facebook, played a huge part in activating the principle of social proof, which is also known as bandwagon and consensus effect. To paraphrase Cialdini, a person is more likely to comply with a request when he knows that many other individuals are, or have been, complying with it. As the campaign picked up and people saw Facebook friend after Facebook friend completing the challenge, they were more and more likely to participate when called upon.
Opportunity for Self-Enhancement
Serena Ehrlich, Director of Social for Business Wire, calls social networks “aspirational representations of who we are.” The ALS ice bucket challenge offered people the opportunity to enhance their identities on social media in two ways. First, it was a fun, attention-grabbing opportunity to broadcast their altruism. Second, it offered many people an excuse to record and share videos of themselves wearing minimal clothing, during what happened to be the height of bathing suit season. The spread of the campaign can be largely attributed to people’s desire to look good on social media.
Cognitive dissonance occurs when there is tension between the way one wants to see oneself and the way one actually behaves. Perloff cites dissonance theorists, who say that persuaders can evoke dissonance in individuals, motivating them to reduce the discomfort. While specific ice bucket challengers weren’t purposely invoking dissonance for the people they challenged, the theory did apply to the basic structure of the campaign in three specific ways: reciprocity, commitment and consistency, and guilt appeals.
The videos’ format explicitly appealed to reciprocity, which “allows one individual to give something to another with confidence that it is not being lost” (Cialdini). By stating, “I was challenged by John, and I nominate Jane, Sarah, and Tom,” the participant shows herself honoring reciprocity, and sets the same expectation for the people she is challenging. They complete the challenge in order to eliminate the tension between thinking, “Alice reciprocated. Alice expects me to reciprocate. Alice can trust me to reciprocate.” and, “I did not reciprocate. Alice can’t trust me to reciprocate.”
Commitment and Consistency
When a person is called out in a public forum, he knows that others expect him to follow through on what he has been asked to do. This is also called hectoring, after the story from The Iliad, when Achilles stood outside the wall of Troy and repeatedly yelled Hector’s name until he came out to fight. Facebook, especially in this digital age, acts as an important public forum, and once the challenge is on Facebook, so is the expectation to participate. “‘People want to look good to others, so it’s hard to turn down a prosocial cause,’ Jonah Berger, the author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, wrote in an email to The Huffington Post. ‘ALS is a great cause, so when someone asks you directly to do this, it’s hard to turn them down without seeming like a bad person.’" Faced with seeming like a bad person to others, people will complete the challenge to eliminate potential dissonance between the thoughts, “I know I am a good person.” and, “They think I am a bad person.”
The ALS ice bucket challenge, unlike other social viral memes like planking and the cinnamon challenge, was tied to charity, which gave people a specific reason to participate and help it spread. Perloff, citing Basil, Ridgway, & Basil, says guilt “‘occurs when an individual notes with remorse that s/he failed to do what s/he ‘ought to’ or ‘should’ do—for example, that s/he violates some social custom, ethical or moral principle, or legal regulation.’” When nominated, people knew the campaign was for a good cause, and that participating was the moral thing to do, so they completed the challenge to avoid guilt-based cognitive dissonance (“The ALS ice bucket challenge is for charity. Completing it is the moral thing to do. I am moral.” versus, “I did not complete the challenge. I am not moral.”)
Measurements of Success
Between June 1 and September 1, over 17,000 videos were shared to Facebook and over 28,000 had “joined the conversation about the ice bucket challenge including posting, commenting or liking a challenge post” according to a Facebook press release. To measure concrete success, we must measure whether the campaign increased awareness of ALS and funding for ALS research.
In August 2014, the English Wikipedia page for ALS was visited 2,875,160 times, a remarkable 1,760% increase from its average of 163,300 views per month. This increase in page views doesn’t indicate how long people stayed on the page or how much information they retained, but regardless, the challenge-initiated conversation did lead to increased curiosity about the disease.
Unprecedented Funds Raised
Between July 29 and August 19, the ALS Association received $22,900,000 in donations, per a press release from the association. This was up from $1,900,000 during the same period the previous year. In other words, funding increased 1,205% over three weeks. Despite any weaknesses of the campaign, this was real money—donated by real people, to help a specific cause—that would not have been donated without the ALS ice bucket challenge.
Focus on Participant, Not Cause
Because of the structure of the videos—participants mentioned who had challenged them and who they were challenging, but nothing about the purpose of the challenge—many people considered the ice bucket dump as the purpose for the campaign, while donating was an alternative, or secondary at best. Vice’s Arielle Pardes criticized it as “a game of Would-You-Rather involving the entire internet where, appallingly, most Americans would rather dump ice water on their head than donate to charity.”
Defenders would argue that even if participants didn’t donate money, they were raising awareness. However, because the videos did not typically include any mention of ALS as a disease worth donating to, they tended to, naturally, focus on the people making them rather than the reasons for doing so. Will Oremus summed up this criticism, asserting, “As for “raising awareness,” few of the videos I’ve seen contain any substantive information about the disease, why the money is needed, or how it will be used. More than anything else, the ice bucket videos feel like an exercise in raising awareness of one’s own zaniness, altruism, and/or attractiveness in a wet T-shirt.”
Pardes identified this focus on one’s zaniness, altruism, and/or attractiveness under the guise of charity as the crux of millennial “hashtag activism,” where instead of actually doing something, you can just pretend like you’re doing something by posting things all over your Facebook.”
The campaign spread due to its inherent sharability, rather than participants’ (even implied) dedication to finding a cure for ALS. Responding to the socially fueled surge in financial support for ALS research, Vox published an article asserting “viral memes shouldn't dictate our charitable giving.” It featured an infographic highlighting the discrepancies between annual charitable giving by disease type, and the number of people killed by those diseases. According to the infographic, motor neuron disease (including ALS) had raised $22,900,000 and killed 6,849 in a year, while heart disease had raised $54,100,000 and killed 596,577. That breaks down to $3,343.55 per person killed by ALS, versus just $90.68 per person killed by heart disease.
ALS Association’s Missed Opportunity to Raise Awareness
The ALS Association remained remarkably quiet throughout the duration of the campaign. Though they published press releases about funds raised and sent emails to their subscribers encouraging participation, from an outsider’s perspective, they didn’t do much to manage messaging about ALS. The organization would have likely benefitted from actively driving people to its website to learn more about ALS, where they could have shared important, targeted information about ALS, instead of losing page views to popular, yet less reliable, sites like Wikipedia. Leading people to their site, the ALS Association may have also increased donations by including a simple call-to-action accompanying information about the disease.
Conclusion and Implications for Future Campaigns
Similar success will be difficult for other organizations to replicate. UNICEF’s Syria appeal, for instance, did everything “right” when developing the #wakeupcall campaign. The challenge was silly, youthful, and explicitly nominated other people to join in, just as the ice bucket challenge had. But the web is an unforgiving place, says writer Caitlin Dewey, and only the strongest hashtags survive. “Organic hashtags that nonprofits jump onto later — a la #icebucketchallenge — have grown up in this environment. They’ve proven that they can survive in the wild.” In developing future charitable giving campaigns, organizations should focus on employing strong influence tactics—such as the principle of social proof, self-enhancement, and cognitive dissonance in the forms of reciprocity, commitment and consistency, and guilt appeals—rather than creating challenges to go viral. As Dewey puts it, “You can’t make fetch happen; it has to happen on its own.”
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