retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

The Ice Bucket Challenge is the hottest hashtag in social media today, with uber-celebrities and just plain folks experiencing a big chill to raise funds and awareness for the devastating neurodegenerative disease ALS.

Bill Gates, LeBron James, Mark Zuckerberg, Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga and Gov. Chris Christie are among those who have taken the challenge and posted videos proving they did indeed dump a bucket of ice water on their head, or had a friend do the honors. (Full disclosure: I got dumped on.)

This viral phenomenon is being praised as stunning example of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram as forces for good. It is also being criticized as “slacktivism” – or online self-promotion by people who don’t really care or donate a penny to the cause at hand.

I’ll go with the former. But first, the cold hard facts.

When a group of pro golfers launched the Ice Bucket Challenge this spring, they dared pals to douse themselves within 24 hours or donate $100 to a charity of their choice. The stunt requires participants to challenge others in their video, and the challenge spread on Facebook. Two young men fighting ALS – New Yorker Pat Quinn and former Boston College baseball player Pete Frates joined in, and encouraged family and friends to target the campaign to ALS-related charities. The ALS Association followed up with a decidedly old-fashioned approach, sending emails to past donors. Soon, there were ice cubes flying coast-to-coast.

Since July 29, the challenge has raised a whopping $22.9 million for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, compared with $1.9 million during the same period last year. The ALS Association said that included 307,000 new donors, with the numbers increasing hourly.

Participants have shared more than 2.4 million ice bucket challenge videos on Facebook – up from 1.2 million last week. And there have been more than 2.2 million mentions on Twitter since July 29.

Amazing numbers, but critics are quick to point out that the challenge is an either/or proposition – ice water bath or donate $100 – but not both. One Slate writer called for a donation-only “No Ice Bucket Challenge” -- noting that “a lot of the participants are probably spending more money on bagged ice than on ALS research.” Others are quick to complain that Matt Lauer never mentioned ALS when Savannah Guthrie dumped ice water on him on the Today Show – but that was before the ALS connection gained traction, and he also donated to a hospice in Florida. President Obama recently opted to make the $100 donation to ALS research when nominated by family matriarch Ethel Kennedy.

Is the challenge perfect? No. Are ALS patients and their families gratified that attention is being paid to this disease? Overwhelmingly, the answer is yes.

“Did we ever imagine the level of awareness or the money that is coming in? In our dreams we did,” Nancy Frates, mother of 29-year-old Pete Frates, told the New York Times.

Happily there is an alternative to the “either/or” and Jimmy Fallon nailed it on his show – Both. It appears more participants are doing just that – taking the ice water, making a donation, and just as importantly, focusing on raising awareness about a disease that affects some 30,000 Americans and has no known cure.

I was nominated by my 19-year-old daughter Emily, and heartened that she and her friends learned about ALS and supporting a worthwhile cause. Sure it was fun (and frigid) and generated lots of “likes” on Facebook, but it also meant something.

I’ve written many MNB columns about the sheer speed and unpredictability of social media, and why retailers, marketers and service providers need to be nimble to compete. The Ice Bucket Challenge is a perfect example of how one idea quickly galvanized the nation, and a window on what we can expect from social media in the future.

To learn more ALS and the Ice Bucket Challenge, I encourage you to click here.

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