Why All Your Facebook Friends Are Taking The ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’

CREDIT: AP Photo/Elise Amendola

Beryl Lipton, left, douses Matt Lee during the ice bucket challenge at Boston's Copley Square, Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014 to raise funds and awareness for ALS.

The rules are simple: Players have 24 hours to either to pour a bucket of ice cold water over their head on camera or contribute money to the charity of their choice. After they’ve made their decision, they appoint three more people to do the same.

The “ice bucket challenge” has taken social media by storm and shed light on Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a genetic disorder also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Martha Stewart, Lance Bass, Matt Lauer and other notable stars have taken part in the challenge in the weeks since Pete Frates, a former Boston College baseball captain who developed ALS two years ago, kicked off the games via social media.

ALS causes muscle spasms, decrease in muscle mass, difficulty in speaking, swallowing, and breathing, and eventually paralysis. Most people who suffer from ALS — more than 12,000 people of various racial and ethnic backgrounds in the United States — usually succumb to respiratory problems within three to five years of showing symptoms.

“Who knew all it would take was a bag of ice and a bucket?” said John Frates, father of Pete Frates, moments before 200 people simultaneously poured nine-quart buckets of ice water over their heads at Boston’s Copley Square last week. “This is a little bit of discomfort for a second, but it’s a lifetime of challenges for people with ALS.”

The ice bucket challenge counts among a host of cause marketing tools that nonprofit organizations and corporations have used to rally support around important causes. Well-known examples include breast cancer awareness campaigns, in which corporations change the color of their products to pink and donate portions of sales to breast cancer research, and campaigns encouraging supporters to shave their head bald as a show of solidarity with cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Some nonprofit organizations have also hosted sleep outs, events during which participants sleep outside for certain periods of time as part of an effort to raise awareness about homelessness.

While charities collected more than $358 million in donations last year through cause marketing, many people have questioned whether the campaigns actually strengthen efforts to cure deadly ailments. The ice bucket campaign’s detractors contend that it falls short in educating the public about the severity of ALS, a genetic disorder that attracts relatively less philanthropic giving than other ailments. In his Wall Street Journal opinion piece last week, Brian M. Carney warned readers against patting themselves on the back for imitating the suffering of those really inflicted with the deadly illness.

“Sure, the ice-bucket brigade has raised ‘awareness’ about ALS, and no doubt money as well. But there must be a better way to accomplish the same thing without encouraging people to do a little pretend suffering — whether that means pouring a bucket of cold water over your head, or running a 10K race or taking on some other physical inconvenience — when it’s the people being helped who know all too well what real suffering is,” Carney wrote.

Breast cancer philanthropy efforts have faced similar scrutiny in recent years, due to what detractors consider the rebranding of corporate products that have been found to contain cancer-causing ingredients. Last year, Breast Cancer Action, a national grassroots breast cancer awareness organization, launched a campaign to stop what it calls “pinkwashing.” In her statement on Breast Cancer Action’s website, Executive Director Kuruna Jaggar appealed to environmentalists and health activists to rally against producers of Swiffer products and Cover Girl cosmetics — products that contain cancer-causing chemicals — for their attempts to profit from breast cancer awareness campaigns and cover up their part in perpetuating the prevalence of the ailment.

“[A]t Breast Cancer Action, we call October ‘Breast Cancer Industry Month,’ the month when corporations make money professing how much they care about breast cancer by selling pink ribbon products… this year, companies are at it again, making money hand over fist by selling products in the name of breast cancer — some of which contain the very chemicals that increase a woman’s risk of the disease,” said Jaggar on Breast Cancer Action’s webpage.

While it’s unclear whether the ice-bucket challenge has impacted ALS philanthropy as a whole, some nonprofits have benefited from the recent exposure. The ALS Association reported $168,000 in donations last week, and representatives of the ALS Development Institute said that online donations have increased ten-fold since Frates started the game weeks ago.