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In Which I Discuss Marketing, Ice Buckets And Assholes

By August 18, 2014February 1st, 2018Marketing Insights & Strategy
In Which I Discuss Marketing, Ice Buckets And Assholes
[box type=”bio”] Whoa! Whoa! Whoa, cowboys and cowgirls! Before you start reading, I want to invite you to post your own ALS Ice Bucket Challenge video to Web.Search.Social’s Facebook page or in the comments below. Our crack engineering team will write sophisticated algorithms to come up with the best of the bunch and we’ll share the best of the best with our mailing list which you can subscribe to on almost every page on this site. Look to the top right of this page. It’s right there in that teal box.[/box]

Marketing Is Hard

It requires a lot of planning. And some luck. You can execute the most thoughtful campaign and be left scratching your head when it fizzles. The opposite is also true. Sometimes a campaign morphs into something new and takes on a life of its own becoming wildly more successful than expected.

Enter The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

You’ve no doubt heard about it, but if you’ve been ice fishing in Hoth, you can read the details here. As of the end of July 2014, the challenge has raised $5.5 million dollars (Source: Nearly 150,000 have donated so far, including some high-profile names). During the same timeframe in 2013, it raised $32,000. That’s a successful campaign by any definition.

What Makes The Ice Bucket Challenge A Success?

What makes this campaign successful is the holy grail of marketing: word of mouth. One person tells their friends. Then those people tell their friends and so on. But that’s only part of the reason. Folded into the complexity of this campaign we also have to recognize that the Ice Bucket Challenge successfully taps into the most important aspect of social media: hubris.

Every video is a selfie evolved.

Every video is a “look at me” moment.

Is that bad? Nope. Not at all. Selfies although derided are typically stronger in terms of engagement than other forms of self promotional messages. Why? Because of our desire to constantly look at, analyze and pick apart other human beings. It’s in our nature.

It stands to reason that if we have an opportunity to capture ourselves doing something benevolent, then we will. And I’m not talking from the sidelines.

Ralph’s Ice Bucket Challenge (Or How I Got Sucked In)

A few days ago, one of my best friends Marisa Campasano (sometimes project manager at Web.Search.Social and wife of Web.Search.Social creative director Michael Campasano) issued the challenge to me. As you can see from the video above, instead of deciding between the bucket and the $100, I decided to go for both with a little assist from Marisa and Michael. I wanted to participate in the charity and also have a little fun.

But “fun” is a delicate word here. Both Marisa and I are not strangers to charities of terrible illnesses. About two years ago, Marisa’s father died of cancer and the family sponsored donations through Memorial Sloan Kettering. I wasn’t a stranger to this because my father had died of cancer a few years before that. For me, while I don’t have anyone close to me with ALS, I know the pain of having a sick family member.

The bucket challenge afforded us a moment to have fun, to do something good and feed our social media hubris. No harm done. Maybe.

Hello, Assholes. (I’ll Get To The Marketing In A Minute!)

After my bucket drop, I read Take the “No Ice Bucket” Challenge By Will Oremus.

Ormeus points out, correctly, that the bucket challenge was not originated by the ALS Association and attacks them for participating in revisionist history in perpetuating the myth. Ok, fair enough. He also adds this:

Yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that, for most of the people posting ice bucket videos of themselves on Facebook, Vine, and Instagram, the charity part remains a postscript. Remember, the way the challenge is set up, the ice-drenching is the alternative to contributing actual money. Some of the people issuing the challenges have tweaked the rules by asking people to contribute $10 even if they do soak themselves. Even so, a lot of the participants are probably spending more money on bagged ice than on ALS research.

Ok. Fair enough. Then Ormeus adds this:

As for “raising awareness,” few of the videos I’ve seen contain any substantive information about the disease, why the money is needed, or how it will be used. More than anything else, the ice bucket videos feel like an exercise in raising awareness of one’s own zaniness, altruism, and/or attractiveness in a wet T-shirt.

Ok. Fair enough.

Then we get the punchline. Ormeus closes by asking people to not do the bucket challenge and instead just donate the money.


I don’t know Will Ormeus so it would be unfair to call him an asshole, but to me he seems to be exhibiting asshole-like behavior by diminishing the philanthropic acts of others because their behavior does not align with his behavior.

Don’t Video Yourself. Except When You Do.

A friend of mine on Facebook posted a video of himself withdrawing money from an ATM. In the video he says that the Ice Bucket Challenge has been “effective”, but the real charity is in giving. He asks that people give rather than dump water. Why not both? Why is his video “look at me” ATM moment better than someone else’s “look at me” bucket moment?

It’s not.

The hubris that drives someone to video themselves being charitable is the same hubris that drives someone to video themselves condemning other people who video themselves.

I don’t mean to make this all sound negative, because it’s not. It’s fun. That’s my point. You can be charitable and have fun at the same time.

I realize that to some, fighting ALS, cancer or whatever should be fire and brimstone, but…

No. No it shouldn’t.

I had a blast watching my friends (and strangers) in these videos and I had a blast doing my own.

That doesn’t diminish the charitable act.

More importantly, I never would have donated to ALS had it not been for the Ice Bucket Challenge because it would never have been on my radar.

So Mr. Ormeus and Mr. Anonymous Facebook Friend, on this matter, you’re wrong and the 150,000 people who have donated are right.

So Where’s The Marketing Lesson? (Finally)

This is more a rant on my part, but there is something to be learned here which is that your marketing simply won’t appeal to everyone. If you are successful at capturing an audience, you’ll still have your detractors as well. If you’re lucky, those detractors won’t be vocal and will simply disappear.

Every experienced marketing professional will tell you that you have to develop an avatar of your perfect customer; well, I’m here to tell you that it’s a hell of a lot easier to say than it is to do.

Because there is no such thing as a perfect avatar. People are way too complex for that. I know that’s not what the textbooks say, but out here in the real world it’s true.

But more importantly…

Marketing Is About People

The thing that makes the ALS challenge a real success is that it’s about people. People are the driving force and people are the intended target of the charity. Every marketer’s wet dream is to create a message that resonates so deeply within a person that that person becomes the advocate and evangelist for the message. At that point the message stops being marketing and it becomes an idea.

This ALS challenge has taken on a life of its own. People are participating and donating even if they don’t know what ALS is. Why? Because they are part of the tribe and they are engaged with the activities of the tribe. They may not know the good they are doing specifically, but somewhere along the way that has ceased to matter.

While Ormeus’ article is inarguably correct in its facts, people are much more than a collection of facts and data points. Exceptional marketers know this and try to leverage this. Knowing the facts makes Ormeus a good journalist, but eliminating the human factor and condemning the participants makes him a bit of an asshole in my mind. Given the comments on his article, I’m probably not alone.

In the end, the success of this campaign can be measured not only in the positive actions of some people, but the adverse reactions of others. Its longevity has made it a target for those who simply know better. Each side is practicing it’s own hubris, but only one side is doing so with good intention.

Don’t Be An Asshole

To zip up this admittedly unusual entry I’d ask that, if you can, give a bit of cash to a charity of your choice. Buckets or no, somebody somewhere can probably benefit from your money.

And don’t forget to post your favorite ALS Ice Bucket Challenge videos to our Facebook page or in the comments below.


Join the discussion 8 Comments

  • Hey Ralph,
    Great post, loved every bit of it, and agree with your points, and especially (not a big surprise when you get to know me, and my “song”), the last part – it’s about PEOPLE? Yeah, that’s the real heart of the matter. I like the way you write. And, I like the way you present your ideas. I’m a friend of Mia Voss, so I’ve seen you on at least one HOA of hers this past year or so.
    Keep doing what you’re doing. You’re good at it. And – i also know what it’s like to have a parent with cancer. It sucked. But there were also strange, unpredictable gifts, and more awareness.
    As for the ALS thing, i saw a statistic a couple days ago that the donations this year were something like quadruple the same campaign last year, so I’m glad to know that people are giving cash as well as participating in the more fun aspect of the drive, whether ALS started it or not. Who cares? The end justifies the means in this case, in my humble opinion.

  • Absolutely on par.

    I had a friend on FB rant about how it was more about the “look at me” part than about raising awareness. And I thought – she’s right, until it starts becoming a part of the every-day joe lexicon rather than the 5-star A-list celebs and before that – just sports figures.

    Having been challenged to do it (mine goes up today) I totally agree about the fun-factor. But then there was another side: who can I challenge (and how many, I looked up the rules: 9) who will generate the most leverage for this awesome cause?

    So the first thing I started doing was making my list of friends who I’d challenge that would get high visibility and a lot of donations. And then I started brainstorming my video (cuz I want it to be somewhat funny).

  • Andrij Harasewych says:

    But should we donate to ALS over other causes that may be better spending the money for something that affects way more people? TBH, ALS is rare disease, in the grand scheme of things.

  • Great post, just commented and followed your FBook page. Keep up the great work.

    I agree with the sentiment of your article here. I understand the annoyance of some with this challenge, and there are some well founded points, but overall I think it’s been awesome. It’s true that there are a number of people that only participate to show off but there are many of us that have also donated. These donations would not have happened without the videos + water.

    I do agree with Andrij Harasewych below that maybe ACS (American Cancer Society) or another non-profit may be more in need of the funding, but for now, I was happy to help this one.

    PS video is here:

    Thanks for the great article, keep it up!