At first it seemed like nothing more than hype — as early as last week critics were calling foul, accusing shivering ice bucketers everywhere of "slacktivism" — doing something to make themselves feel good, but not really making a difference.
But now the numbers are in on the viral sensation of the ice bucket challenge — in which friends dare each other on social media to dump a cooler of ice over their heads or donate money to the ALS foundation, or both. And the numbers are real. Between July 29 and Aug. 20, the ALS Association has raised over $30 million. To put that in perspective, in 2012 the organization took in about $19 million for the whole year.
It's a self-perpetuating, cost-free cash cow. It's a social media phenomenon that didn't just raise awareness — it actually raised cold, hard cash. So what made it work, and can other causes recreate it?
The ice bucket challenge was kicked-off not by the ALS Association, but an individual who suffers from ALS. Peter Frates, the 29-year-old former captain of the Boston College baseball team who was diagnosed in 2012, kicked off the campaign with his network of sports fans and players for teams like the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers, according to Time.com. Soon other sports celebrities joined in, which led to more celebrities.
People are more likely to follow a cause that's personal. A study from the University of Pennsylvania found that people are more likely to feel sympathetic to a cause that has an "identifiable" face behind it.
It's easy and light-hearted
Causes can get heavy, but gimmicks like the ice bucket challenge keep it easy and fun. Unlike a fun run or a food drive, it's easily achieved and shared in a snap. And instead of keeping the focus on a heavy issue, the focus stays on something that's light-hearted. Movember — the challenge in which men grow mustaches to raise money for men's health issues like prostate cancer — has the same appeal.
Experts theorize that it's harder for people to keep focused on tragedy or trauma.