DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

Loganjaninefinalprojectmethc757    December 11, 2015

Human Behavior Showcased via Social Media Propels ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Success

     The fact that the challenge itself – to douse or donate - of the 2014 ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was lost in a viral social media frenzy points to a psycho/social force that is more powerful and pronounced than social marketers and fund raisers could ever predict.  The homegrown challenge grew innocently enough from a simple dare.  Yet, as the days and weeks of the 2014 ALS Ice Bucket Challenge wore on, the majority of the participants ignored the dare and simply doused and donated, according to a variety of news reports and video views.  This defies the inherent logic of choice.  The ubiquity of social media explains how this happened, but the complexity of human behavior explains why.

     Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a rather rare, neurodegenerative disease that renders its victims motionless, speechless, and eventually lifeless.[i] It is commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease.  There is no cure.  Given that grim fact, it seems it would be an unlikely candidate for a social media viral explosion, but this is exactly what happened with this challenge.   One person is challenged by another person via video post.  The challenger has someone film them as they are drenched with an ice cold bucket of water.  Within 24-hours the challenge must be completed.    The challenged individual has the choice to donate $100 to the ALS Association or take the bucket of ice water over the head.[ii]  Most simply did both.   

     Social scientists who have studied the 2014 ALS Ice Bucket Challenge found it intriguing that the participants who are also donors performed the act of giving so publicly.  The conventional psychology of giving holds that, for the most part, people choose to be modest about their prosocial behavior.[iii]  Blatantly advertising one’s good deeds is often construed as bragging and self-serving and is not the true meaning of altruistic behavior in its purest sense.[iv]  Blogger Leonid Bershidsky notes that the ice bucket challenge “created a safe environment in which people could display their altruism.”[v]  Social media platforms, because they encourage interactivity, conversation, and sharing, allow altruistic behavior to unfold easily, quickly, and without threat of judgement.  

     If we consider the genesis of the ice bucket challenge, we can conclude that the actual social media platforms themselves essentially ignited and propelled the ALS campaign.  A couple of clever ALS sufferers and their family members picked up on a viral ice bucket challenge stunt initially started by golfers to support pet charities.  On July 15, 2014, Jeanette Senerchia of Pelham, New York, having been challenged by her golfer cousin, threw down the first ALS Ice Bucket Challenge in support of her ALS-afflicted husband.  She innocently filmed the stunt and posted it on Facebook.[vi]

     Authors Li and Bernoff write that “There is something fundamental behind the drive to be social – something that touches, or will touch, all of us.  It’s a need to connect.”[vii]  Social networks are the perfect media for this.  Facebook, in particular, serendipitously grew the challenge and, as coincidence would have it, Senerchia’s initial post fell into the right hands of the right person at the right time – Peter Frates, a former athlete who was diagnosed with ALS in 2012.[viii]  At that moment, the challenge – douse or donate – in the name of ALS went viral.  It became a social contagion everyone wanted to catch.

    In a December 2014 ABC news report, Frates mom, Nancy Frates, talks about how her son, within six hours of diagnosis, decided that word about this rare, unfunded disease needed to get before major philanthropists like Bill Gates so funding for research leading to a cure could accelerate.[ix]    Pete Frates’ achieved that goal when Bill Gates took the ice bucket challenge on   

August 15, 2014.[x]  Like most everyone else, Gates doused and pledged a donation. 

     Gates’ action represented a critical juncture for the challenge, as his participation not only solidified the craze’s extensive reach via social media channels, but it helped further the spread of what social scientists refer to as the descriptive norm – engaging in a particular behavior because everyone else is.[xi]  This type of norm usually arises from everyday social interaction and the common human desire to be like and act like everyone else.  The concept aligns with the motivational aspect of social cognitive theory that holds that one’s desired action is dependent, among other influences, on the support of family, friends, and peers.[xii]

     In contrast, other social scientists who have studied the 2014 ALS Ice Bucket Challenge point to its narcissistic appeal.  The challenge provides the perfect opportunity for attention-seekers to be noticed by thousands, if not millions, especially as the popularity of the challenge grew.   Actor Charlie Sheen’s video showing him showering himself with $10,000.00 worth of paper money, as opposed to ice water,[xiii]could be rooted in narcissistic tendencies and the desire to outdo the next person.   However, even if narcissism is a motivating factor for some, many fund raisers say it does not matter what the motivation is as long as money is being raised. 

     Blogger and psychology student Jenika, in commenting about the 2014 ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, argues that if one’s image is shaped by what other people think and do, then that is “still a socially-oriented activity rather than actual narcissism.”[xiv]  She concludes that people are pouring water over their heads not because they are motivated by a desire for personal attention, but simply because everyone else is pouring water over their heads.  In other words, everyone is getting attention so the act of ice showering can’t be individually motivated.

   Sociologists Cook and Rice maintain that social exchange theory,[xv] which looks at various relationship constructs between individuals and groups and the motivations behind them, will always surface a conflict between the group and the individual’s interest in his/her own gain.  This is especially evident in situations of collective action where rules and accountability are vague.  Evolutionary instinct inclines people to look out for themselves and find what is in it for them. 

     It is difficult to definitively apply the social exchange theory to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge because participants received nothing really for themselves other than a head full of ice, a lighter wallet, a few minutes of fame, and a few good laughs.  Granted participants also enjoyed, hopefully, the good feeling that comes with helping others and perhaps this was benefit enough.  If that is true, then the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge most certainly demonstrated psychological altruism in its truest sense.  The psychology field, however, debates whether humans are capable of pure psychological altruism, “because altruism ultimately benefits the self in many cases.  The selflessness of altruistic acts is brought into question.”[xvi]

     The results of a study about charitable intent conducted by social scientist Sander van der Linden reveal that the presence of moral norms, what one has learned and thinks is the right thing to do, play a stronger role in determining the intention to give to charity.[xvii]  His research examined the difference between social norms, what everyone else is doing, compared to moral norms, which are embedded in the individual.  The author concludes that charitable organizations should pay more attention to targeting “people’s sense of moral norms as a significant predictor of donating intentions.”[xviii]  This study somewhat contradicts the social norm theory that has been observed as a motivator for those participating in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.  It could be that such a conclusion is drawn mainly because the challenge took place only in a social media context. But then there is no definitive evidence that moral norms were not also at play.

     The human motivation to give is also tied to knowledge and awareness.  It logically follows that the better we know a cause and/or more clearly identify with it the more comfortable we are about making decisions to donate.  This is why charities collectively spend millions annually on awareness raising/fund raising campaigns.  Charitable giving is big business with $358.38 billion donated to charities in 2014, according to the 2015 Giving USA Report.[xix] 

     The ALS Association, however, spent no marketing dollars on the 2014 ALS Ice Bucket Challenge campaign, because it did not develop the campaign.  That is probably one of the most fascinating facts about this campaign.  The campaign is now an annual fund raiser for the ALS Association and the organization invests in branding and marketing.   Searching for the ALS Association brings the user to a dedicated challenge page[xx] complete with a dedicated hashtag #everyaugustuntilacure.     

     As much as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge defied the logic of choice inherent in human behavior, its branding success contradicted the number one marketing mantra – an organization must have a plan in order to be successful.   What it did have was a clear objective articulated by Peter Frates on the day he was diagnosed with ALS.  He vowed that day that he would turn his tragic situation into a positive, if not for himself, then for other ALS sufferers who would come after him.  He would raise awareness about ALS disease.  His audience would be people everywhere.  His technology would be social media networks.  In July 2014, he got his chance when he orchestrated an ice bucket challenge with his college friends and sports buddies and unknowingly began a social media phenomenon.

     The Facebook data team analyzed activity on its platform between June 1 and September 7, 2014.  It reported that 17 million ice bucket videos were shared and that these videos were viewed more than 10 billion times by more than 440 million people.[xxi]  That is outrageous reach and penetration.  More recently, in the 30-day period between November 4, 2015 and December 4, 2015, social analytics form Topsy recorded 25,283 tweets about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.[xxii]

     Regardless, one of the general criticisms of the campaign is that it lacked education about ALS disease.  Some contend that because people were not learning specifics about the disease, the challenge’s merits were diminished and the severity and fatality of the disease was being minimized. A literature search on this topic did not reveal any report that specifically measured the level of new awareness obtained about ALS disease as a direct result of the challenge.   Some critics went so far as to say that the participants really didn’t care about the disease itself or how much money was raised, but more about joining in the social frenzy.  Whether that is true or not for one or all of the participants, the challenge’s success measured by the millions it raised in such a short amount of time is staggering and even more outstanding that it was done without a formal plan to raise awareness.  ALS Association president/CEO Barbara Newhouse reports on the organization’s website that in the period between July 29, 2014 and August 12, 2014, the association raised $4 million in donations and that 70,000 new donors joined the cause.  During that same time period the prior year, donations totaled $1.12 million.[xxiii] 

     The ALS Association reports on its website how the millions raised from the challenge have accelerated research efforts.[xxiv]  From innovative clinical trials to greater knowledge about the genetics of this devastating disease, the funds raised by the challenge unequivocally moved the science and medicine of ALS disease light years ahead of where it was prior to the infusion of the ice bucket cash.  Nancy Frates said, “When the cure is found, August 2014 will be seen as the tipping point in the trajectory of this disease.”[xxv]

     The classic communication theory forwarded decades ago by Marshall McLuhan – “the medium is the message”[xxvi] – is certainly one of the more dynamic forces at work that propelled the success of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge campaign.  McLuhan argued that the vehicle carrying the message was more important than the content.  His theory gained popularity as television sets and viewers grew in numbers.  He maintained that television, the hot medium in the 1970s, allowed viewers to get the message without having to work hard to understand it.  Further, he believed a television viewer could “become part of that which was being viewed.”[xxvii] 

     Nearly 50 years later, social networks are the “hot” media, and no one can argue with the interactivity these networks promote.  We can conclude then that social media platforms – Facebook, Twitter, You Tube and the like – are the ALS message and that social media is responsible for a significant amount of the success of the 2014 ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and will be for each upcoming August challenge.  The continued success of this campaign, because it requires a call to action, rests with the application of human psycho/social behavioral theories, regardless of which one or combination of theories is ascribed to the participant’s motivation to take the challenge. 


[i] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/gard/5786/amyotrophic-lateral-sclerosis/resources/1

[ii] Zalben, A. Blog Post. August 20, 2014.  Accessed December 2, 2015 from http://www.mtv.com/news/1904680/ice-bucket-challenge-rules/

[iii]Berman, J.  et al (2015) “The Braggart’s Dilemma: On the Social Rewards and Penalties of Advertising Prosocial Behavior.” Journal of Marketing Research. February 2015, Vol. 52, No. 1, pp. 90 – 104  doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1509/jmr.14.0002 

[v] Bershidsky, L. “Why the Ice Bucket Challenge Worked.” Bloomberg View Blog. August 29, 2014. http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2014-08-29/why-the-ice-bucket-challenge-worked

[vi] Reddy, S. “How the Ice Bucket Challenge Got Its Start.” Wall Street Journal. Health and Wellness Blog. August 14, 2014.  http://www.wsj.com/articles/how-the-ice-bucket-challenge-got-its-start-1408049557

[vii] Li, C. and Bernoff, J. Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2011. p. 60.

[viii] Reddy, S. “How the Ice Bucket Challenge Got Its Start.” Wall Street Journal .Health and Wellness Blog. August 14, 2014. http://www.wsj.com/articles/how-the-ice-bucket-challenge-got-its-start-1408049557

[ix]ABC News. “The Man Behind the Ice Bucket Challenge’s ‘Viral’ Storm.” December 28, 2014. http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2014/12/the-man-behind-the-als-ice-bucket-challenges-viral-storm/

[xi] Kitts, J. and Yen-Sheng, C. “Norms” Encyclopedia of Social Problems, Vincent Partillo, Ed. New York: Sage Publications, 2008.

[xii] Schiavo, R. Health Communication from Theory to Practice 2nd ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2014, p. 43.

[xiv] Jenika. “What the Ice Bucket Challenge Teaches Us about Marketing.” Next Chapter Blog. Accessed December 2, 2015 from http://psychologyforphotographers.com/what-the-ice-bucket-challenge-teaches-us-about-marketing

[xv] Cook, K. and Rice, E.  Department of Sociology, Stanford University, Stanford, California. Handbook of Social Psychology edited by John Delamater.  Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers: New York. 2003. p. 69.

[xvi]Boundless. “Altruism: Helping.” Boundless Psychology. Boundless, 27 Aug. 2015. Accessed December 2, 2015 from https://www.boundless.com/psychology/textbooks/boundless-psychology-textbook/social-psychology-20/social-behavior-105/altruism-helping-399-12934/

[xvii] Van der Linden, S.  “Charitable Intent: A Moral or Social Construct? A Revised Theory of Planned Behavior Model.” Current Psychology (2011) 30:355-374. Print.

[xviii]  Van der Linden, S.  “Charitable Intent: A Moral or Social Construct? A Revised Theory of Planned Behavior Model.” Current Psychology (2011) 30:355-374. Print.

[xxv] ABC News. “The Man Behind the Ice Bucket Challenge’s ‘Viral’ Storm.” December 28, 2014. http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2014/12/the-man-behind-the-als-ice-bucket-challenges-viral-storm/

[xxvi] Seital, F. The Practice of Public Relations 5th Edition.  Macmillan Publishing Company: New York, NY. 1992. p. 172.

[xxvii] Seital, F. The Practice of Public Relations 5th Edition. Macmillan Publishing Company: New York, NY. 1992, p. 172.

 

 

 

 

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Li, C. and Bernoff, J. Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2011.

Reddy, S. “How the Ice Bucket Challenge Got Its Start.” Wall Street Journal. Health and Wellness Blog. August 14, 2014.  http://www.wsj.com/articles/how-the-ice-bucket-challenge-got-its-start-1408049557

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Seital, F. The Practice of Public Relations 5th Edition.  Macmillan Publishing Company: New York, NY. 1992.

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Zalben, A. Blog Post. August 20, 2014.  Accessed December 2, 2015 from http://www.mtv.com/news/1904680/ice-bucket-challenge-rules/  

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.