From splash to backlash: in defence of the ice bucket challenge
By now you are justifiably sick of watching videos of friends and celebrities dumping icy water on themselves. Search the word #icebucketchallenge on Instagram and you will get over a million hits. The latest social media phenomenon, intended to raise awareness for ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease), began in June and had raged to an all-out Internet frenzy by mid-August. Gangnam Style is so two years ago.
The figures are staggering: in the U.S., the challenge has raised nearly US$80 million (HK$620 million) for the ALS Association in just a few weeks. 2.4 million videos have been shared on Facebook and 5.5 million mentions have been logged on Twitter. Business schools around the world are re-writing their Marketing 101 course materials to analyze what many believe to be the most successful chain letter stunt in history.
The campaign has spread from a small coastal city in Florida to virtually every corner of the world – except perhaps North Korea and the Ebola-hit West African nations. The challenge now comes in many shapes and forms. In India, for instance, where drinking water is scarce, participants give away buckets of rice to feed the hungry. Palestinians in war-torn Gaza dunk rubble on themselves to spread awareness about Israel’s indiscriminate bombings.
In Hong Kong, where fads and crazes catch on faster than a minibus on the Tuen Mun Highway, ice bags are flying off the shelves at convenience stores and supermarkets. The lack of open space is no deterrent to trend-seeking citizens. Thousands have done it the Hong Kong way by standing in their telephone booth-sized bathrooms at home and getting doused next to shampoo bottles and hung towels. Even camera-shy government officials are showing an unusual interest in the publicity stunt, perhaps at the behest of their boss C.Y. Leung, who is grateful for any media distraction in this summer of discontent.
To date, the ice bucket challenge has raised HK$15 million for the Hong Kong Neuro-Muscular Disease Association (HKNMDA). The group, which provides support to ALS patients and their caretakers, has been caught completely off-guard by the craze. With only two full-time staffers, the small NGO outfit is inundated with a deluge of donors’ inquiries and an massive influx of new cash. It is nevertheless a problem that many charitable organisations wish they had.
As is the case for any high-profile campaign, success is inevitably followed by a backlash. Naysayers ranging from regular netizens to newspaper columnists and medical doctors have come out swinging at the ALS challenge. They have focused on five main criticisms: (1) the waste of fresh water, (2) the waste of money on ice, (3) the health hazards of ice bucketing, (4) the potential cannibalising effect on other charities, and (5) a 21st Century social phenomenon called “slacktivism.” Slacktivists are those who make a minimal effort to help a social cause, such as by sharing a Facebook post or signing an online petition, instead of donating money or volunteering their time. Recent examples includes the #StopKony online campaign against Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony and the #bringbackourgirls petition to rescue the kidnapped school girls in Nigeria.
To show that these criticisms are all a bunch of sanctimonious baloney, I shall rebut them one by one.
Waste of fresh water: No one ever complains about the annual Standard Chartered Marathon, which consumed bottled water by the truckload. Once the race is over, runners go home to take a long, well-deserved shower and throw their sweat-soaked clothes in the washing machine, which uses 40 to 45 gallons of water per load. By contrast, the ALS challenge requires an amount of water equivalent to merely an extra 30 seconds in the shower. It also seems somewhat hypocritical to pick on ice-bucketers when so many wash their cars every day and leave the faucets running while they brush their teeth.
Waste of money: “Why not just give the ice money to charity?” asks the sceptic. By that logic, kids who bake cupcakes to raise funds for their school libraries should just write a cheque instead of spending money on flour and eggs. At least dunking ice doesn’t make you fat. And if you really want to talk about wasting money, think of all those benefit dinners held at five-star hotels, where fancy tai-tais spend more on their designer gowns than on the charity. So let’s not jump up and down over a $17 bag of ice.
Health hazards: Doctors have warned that a sudden exposure to icy water can in very rare cases lead to a cold shock, which can be fatal for people with pre-existing cardiovascular problems. Four fire-fighters in Kentucky were injured last week when the ladder they were using to dump water got caught in a power line. But no matter what activities we engage in, there will always be thin-skulled cases and freak accidents. We don’t stop cleaning the beach for fear of stepping on broken glass, and we certainly don’t cancel the AIDS Walk because some guy with a weak heart dies from a heat stroke. In the grand scheme of things, dumping water is pretty safe.
Cannibalisation: Charitable donations are not a zero-sum game. Just because someone sends a bit of money to the ALS Association doesn’t mean that he will give less to his favorite charities. Even if there is a bit of “robbing Peter to pay Paul” going on, donating is ultimately a personal choice. Who is to say that the HKNMDA is less deserving than the Red Cross, or that ALS research is less urgent than curing cancer? If you are unsure about supporting ALS, read up on Stephen Hawking and the staggering contributions the physicist has made to mankind.
Slacktivism: Let’s face it, if people weren’t sharing videos of the ALS challenge, they would have been watching cat videos or posting food porn on Facebook – at least the campaign has given us something a bit more meaningful to divert our attention to. Even if only 5% of the participants actually end up donating money to ALS or learning about the disease, that’s 5% more than before the campaign took off. Slacktivists or not, ice-bucketers should pat themselves on the shoulder for giving an overlooked and underfunded disease the global awareness it deserves. The challenge has done to ALS what Yul Brynner did to lung cancer and Mohammad Ali to Parkinson’s Disease.
My rebuttal notwithstanding, there is one criticism for which I do have some sympathy. William Foxton of The Daily Telegraph describes the ice bucket challenge as a “middle-class wet T-shirt contest” and a “ghastly narcissistic freak show.” Indeed, few things are more off-putting then 15-minutes-of-famers who make the challenge all about themselves. Make no mistake, men who take off their shirts or women who put on skin-tight yoga tops are automatically suspect. And any video that lasts longer than 90 seconds or that is self-narrated in two or more languages crosses the line into self-promotion territory. I know at least one friend who is so desperate for attention that he badgers everyone he knows for a nomination. That said, none of these minor annoyances can negate all the good the campaign has done.
When it comes to neurological diseases, ALS is as bad as it gets. There is no known cause or treatment, period. In many cases, the patient is left physically incapacitated – other than eye movement and bowel functions – while his mind remains sound as a dollar. Second to finding a cure, the ice bucket challenge is the best thing that has happened to the tragic illness. And if we happen to get a little wet or indulge in a few minutes of self-gratification while telling the world about it, then so be it.
The views are the author's own.