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Ice bucket challenge burns through social media

Authenticity and humor help icy challenges become an online phenomenon

Chehaw Executive Director Doug Porter and staff at the park took the ALS ice bucket challenge. (Special Photo)

Chehaw Executive Director Doug Porter and staff at the park took the ALS ice bucket challenge. (Special Photo)

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Former President George W. Bush’s plans to just write a check got all wet last week. (Special Photo)

ALBANY — By any measure, the ALS Association caught lightning in a bottle with its viral ice bucket challenge campaign.

You can see it happening daily on social media, a short video of someone you know who has had someone dump icy water on him or her, ending with challenges. The person in the video calls out by name relatives, friends or even someone he or she doesn’t like, giving them 24 hours to take an icy dousing or to send a donation — usually $100 — to the ALS Association.

And it’s made a remarkable difference for an organization fighting a disease that until a few weeks only had about a 50 percent awareness level with the American public. On Friday, the ALS Association reported that the donations it received for the period of July 29 through Tuesday had topped $88.5 million. Last year for that time period, the association pulled in a fraction of that amount — $2.6 million.

Association officials also say they had 1.9 million new donors sending in money, again just since July 29.

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Joe Phua

Joe Phua, assistant professor of advertising at the University of Georgia, said the ice bucket challenge phenomenon has been wildly successful because it was the right idea that came into play at the right time. While marketers and public relations experts try for this sort of viral marketing, it’s difficult to accomplish.

“I think there are lots of companies and brands that try to create a viral campaign, but it usually doesn’t last or doesn’t catch on that well,” he said in a phone interview last week. “But this case, it was the right place at the right time. The idea is very novel in the sense that no one has done it before.”

While the origin of dumping ice water on someone as a fundraiser has some dispute, it seems pretty clear that the efforts of former Boston College baseball player Pete Frates, who has ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), and his friend, the late Corey Griffin, launched the campaign that has resulted in a series of videos that are, essentially, average people pulling funny pranks on themselves and challenging others to do the same thing. Griffin died Aug. 16 when, the day after he raised $100,000 for the ALS campaign, he leaped from the top of the Juice Boys building at Nantucket at 2 a.m., drowning in Nantucket Harbor. The jump was a traditional local rite of passage, reports have said.

His concern for his friend is understandable. An ALS diagnosis is bleak. Better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, it’s a progressive neurodegenerative illness that kills nerve cells and pathways in the brain and spinal cord, sapping voluntary muscle control and resulting in paralysis and death, though the mind usually stays sharp. More than 5,600 people are diagnosed each year with ALS and the life expectancy after diagnosis is two to five years. ALS Association officials say there is one drug approved by the Food & Drug Administration for use against ALS and that its administration results only in extending survival by two or three months.

One aspect that has led to the popularity of the fundraising phenomenon has been the perceived sincerity of the effort by Griffin to help Frates by raising money for research. That’s what one Southwest Georgian who accepted and passed forward the challenge said last week.

Matthew Inman, engineering and planning director for Lee County, said Frates’ story was what prompted him to participate. “The thing that made me want to do it was I saw a feature on ESPN about Pete Frates, the guy this was originally started over,” Inman said. “He was an athletic kind of guy and a few years out of college. He was playing in a men’s baseball game and things just seemed off.

“He went for a checkup and found he had ALS. Eighteen months later, he’s in a wheelchair and can’t speak. It just kind of hits you. I’m quite a bit older than he is, but a guy that young … to get struck down by something, it hits home pretty hard. It makes you think about how we all have a time coming, we just want to think it’s later rather than sooner.”

That sense of authenticity — the idea that the effort has sincerity at its heart, not orchestration by marketing and advertising professionals — has been critical to its success, Phua said.

“I think that most viral campaigns start out that way,” said Phua, whose research examines the effect of new and emerging communication technologies, “somebody wanting to help or doing something that is authentic, something that is not what users perceive as a marketing message.”

Social media users don’t trust advertising messages, but are likely to share with their friends and connections things that they believe are authentic — especially if they’re funny, he said. “Traditional” viral media has focused on things that are funny, particularly pranks, he said.

“That is what the traditional viral campaign is like, something you cannot see on TV, something that you have to use young people and social media to pass along,” Phua said. “But with this campaign, it seems like the company was very clever in that they used actual people playing a prank of pouring an ice bucket on themselves as a way to pass on the message. That’s really novel.”

It creates, he said, “this chance for people to film themselves doing this silly thing. … They’ve done it and then they’re challenging someone else to do it.” By calling out the people they’re challenging by name, those who are challenged feel they have to meet it or send in money.

“I challenge you,” Doug Porter, executive director at Chehaw, explained. “You’re either going to dump a bucket of ice water on your head or you need to send a check to ALS, and the recommended amount is $100. If you take the ice bucket challenge, theoretically, you don’t have to send any money.”

Porter, who learned of the fundraiser from relatives in Tallahassee who took the challenge, brought it to Chehaw, where staff at all levels got involved.

“The staff out here like to do that kind of thing, so they took it and ran with it,” he said. “We liked the idea that it was tied to ALS as a charity because we’re kind of a charity ourselves. We raise money for conservation, so this was a little outside our normal zone of what we look at.”

Porter said his challenges were directed to other groups. “We were hoping to inspire that kind of out-of-the-box thinking,” he said.

Porter said he saw comment on the Internet from a girl who asked why people were wasting water in order to not send money to charity.

“We sent a check to ALS also,” he said. “I guess also it raises awareness, but I bet just about everybody that does this is also sending money to the charity.”

That was the case with Inman, too.

“It’s amazing how quickly it’s caught on,” Inman said. “And I know some people are getting upset because some people are doing it and not donating, but the marketing campaign … I don’t think any charitable organization could come up with any more viral and effective marketing campaign in such a short time. It seems like everybody’s doing it now. Whether they’re donating or not, the awareness for the disease has got to be through the roof.

“We sent a donation in and all that, but hopefully there’s enough people sending donations in. And just creating awareness for it … next time when someone does get a phone call from ALS trying to raise money, they’ve obviously heard about it now.”

Both Albany area men said the freezing cold water that they were doused with was authentic, too.

“The buddy that did it to me dragged it out, probably about 10 seconds, and I was just wanting to go ahead and get it over with. It’s quite a shock to the system,” Inman said, noting that his moment came near a pool that he jumped in to warm up as soon as the video camera was turned off.

“We have ice machines out here,” Porter said, “so they made sure they loaded up the ice water. Everywhere they dropped a bucket on somebody, it had a lot of ice in it.”

As Chehaw staff participated, some of the close-by animals darted away, coming back slowly to make sure their keepers were OK, he said.

Phua said the fundraiser has been successful because regular people are buying into it. But celebrities who participate — people like singer Justin Timberlake, comedians Jeff Foxworthy and Ron White, even former President George W. Bush — give it an added push, especially the pop stars, entertainers and actors who are media savvy. Their tweets and social messages reach millions of people with the touch of a send button.

“If you attract the opinion leaders,” he said, “you’re more likely to get the followers.”

Plus, Phua said, you don’t have to like a Justin Timberlake to enjoy seeing him shiver from a frigid dousing.

Previous viral efforts, such as First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” flash mob dance and the Harlem Shuffle, have seen viral success, but the uniqueness of adding in the challenge in the ice bucket fundraiser has set it apart, Phua said.

“They allowed regular users of social media … to create their own videos and post them online for their friends to see,” he said. “In this particular case, it’s been able to catch fire … because it’s probably the first campaign that’s allowed people to challenge people in exchange for some kind of Internet fame.”

The challenge isn’t restricted by borders or even oceans.

“Today when I logged into Facebook,” Phua said, “I saw friends in Europe and Asia who are already doing the bucket challenge as well.”

It’s been said the imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but Phua doubts that another charity would be successful by exactly duplicating the ice bucket challenge.

“It’s probably going to be one of the most successful — if not the most successful — viral advertising campaigns of the year, but in order to replicate (the success), I think that advertisers or marketers have to come up with something new,” he said. “It’s like a virus, basically. The public becomes immunized to watching this phenomenon. No one’s going to try to do a similar challenge. It has to be something that hasn’t been done before that people see as authentic and fun.”

Phua also doesn’t see a long life for the ice bucket challenge, saying it’s been effective but is unlikely to last.

“In my research,” he said, “it has been shown that these campaigns have to be very timely and they run their course, which would be very soon. As soon as a majority of people have done it, it’s no longer considered ‘cool’ and so people stop doing it.

“There’s a lot of underground trends that don’t propagate. But once they reach a critical mass, they become mainstream. Once they become too mainstream, they die off.”

The component that looks like it will last, however, is the medium — video.

“I think there’s more of a move toward passing along video messages using social media,” Phua said. “This ALS bucket challenge is an extension of that. On Instagram and on Vine, there are a lot of people posting six-second videos of something funny. This is a followup on that kind of trend — a short video of somebody performing this stunt on themselves.”

Facebook, however, might not be what delivers those videos. Teens and millennials already are more likely to use social media such as Snapchat, Vine and Instagram, Phua said, to send short video messages and pictures.

Meanwhile, those who are criticizing the effort shouldn’t underestimate the awareness of the disease and the ALS Association that is coming from these videos.

“I think it creates knowledge about this disease and knowledge about how to help people,” Phua said.