The Cold Hard Truth about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

By now, we’ve all heard about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, and there’s a good chance most of us have even taken a few seconds to dump ice water over our own heads in the spirit of spreading awareness and contributing to a good cause. I love a good “Oh my GAWD, that was SO cold!” outburst as much as the next person, but what I’ve enjoyed most about the challenge is watching the way people react to it on social media. It seems there are two kinds of people when it comes to the challenge: those who think the campaign is effective, and those who think the campaign is not. From a marketing standpoint, there’s only one clear answer: it’s working.

But not necessarily for the reasons you think it is …

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge goes way beyond recruiting people to douse themselves with cold water and donate money. In its simplest form, it’s a brilliant marketing campaign that had the right elements to catch on and go viral — but behind the scenes, there’s a very complex driver that makes it all work: human behavior.

On a normal day, most people are not willing to dump ice water over their heads. They’re also not likely to post a video of themselves on social media. Unfortunately, I’d guess that they’re also not willing to donate $100 to a charity, let alone a specific charity that may or may not have any significant meaning to them.

How did the Ice Bucket Challenge get so many people to engage in all three of these actions at the same time? Hint: It’s not because it’s a good cause. There are plenty of good causes out there that haven’t gotten the awareness or participation that ALS has — we know that people don’t do things JUST because they should (take sustainability for example). There has to be a personal benefit.

I believe the Ice Bucket Challenge has become successful because it taps into our ego, in the true psychological sense of what “ego” is — the mediator between id and super-ego, the organized part of our personality responsible for editing raw instinct and desire into something that’s appropriate in the real world. As humans, we have a primal need to be recognized. We find ourselves doing some things because we are extrinsically motivated (we’re looking for motivation from the world around us — a reward), as opposed to being intrinsically motivated (doing things that make us feel good inside, without any recognition from the outside world).

The ALS Ice-Bucket Challenge fires on both cylinders — we feel good inside that we’re donating to a charity and raising awareness, and we get to take the social media stage for a moment by sharing video and commentary about our good deeds at the same time. It allows us to “surprise” our audience by showing a side of ourselves out of context (think of your normally reserved friends who are typically inactive on Facebook, but all of a sudden have an ice-bucket video on their page), without coming off as vain, self-centered or arrogant. Remember, we are living in “selfie” times — the “me” focus is alive and well, and not always well received.

In addition to pleasing the ego, the Ice-Bucket Challenge creates a universal affinity among society at large. Everyone is doing the challenge: pop stars, sports heroes, celebrity personalities, your co-workers, your neighbors, your cousins, your parents and your friends. Everyone gets to feel like they’re part of something. No matter who you are, you can belong to the Ice-Bucket Challenge.

Those who are calling the campaign ineffective seem to be focused on the off-putting vibe that the challenge requires us to show off just a little bit — we stand in front of the camera, we endure the cold water, we make it known that we’re part of a big, important conversation and that we’re doing our part to support a great cause. It’s marketing brilliance, and it’s working. The money being donated to ALS is unprecedented, and awareness for the disease has skyrocketed.

The cold hard truth? The ice-bucket challenge is working. ALS is no longer a mysterious acronym lost in a sea of other diseases vying for attention outside of the breast cancer shadow. There’s room to do good for all charities — whether you choose to buy every product in pink from now on or dump ice-water over your head, the important thing is that we’re DOING something. Advertising is about changing behavior — cheers to ALS for breaking through. Buckets up!

By Lisa Dolbear, Account Planner, EMA Insight