I’m eager to see how folks with serious interest in ethics will analyze the Ice Bucket campaign. And I’m hoping the discussion includes more than the knee-jerk reactions we typically see in social media. Let me start the discussion here.
The campaign raised money and created a higher awareness for ALS, both positive outcomes. From a marketing perspective, it’s a textbook case that demonstrates the value of narcissism in motivating behavior. Social-media lesson confirmed: It’s all about us, baby! Immodest, but not unethical.
As a fairly devout utilitarian and long-time ethics instructor, I give the campaign high marks. It brought a ton of dough to the charity, and that will help people afflicted with ALS. But ALS must understand that we’ll be watching how it spends the windfall.
Was anyone harmed in the process? Not really. One might argue that other charities suffered, since the philanthropic pie has only so many slices. But all charities are free to compete for those dollars and always have been. Like it or not, nonprofits in the USA operate on the free-market model.
In other cases, the Ice Bucket campaign created a platform for organizations to promote their own organizations’ objectives. But is it wrong for institutions to benefit by piggybacking on this viral phenomenon? Were I still a PR practitioner, I’d have bought a truckload of ice and searched for the most creative way to douse all my clients. And, of course, I’d have made damn sure the news media came to feed on this low-hanging fruit.
This article in Forbes, which focuses on the legitimacy of charitable tax deductions for Ice Bucket, highlights an important tenet of ethics that’s often overlooked: intent. Was the donors’ primary intent to support ALS victims, or were they more concerned with promoting their own egos or organizations?
Don’t take the Forbes article too seriously. Even the author admits that the IRS isn’t about to audit folks who claim deductions for their ice-bucket donations. It would be bad PR. Really bad.
One last thought: If you’re thinking of asking your clients or employers to take the ALS shower next week, forget about it. Doing so now will only show that you’re a social-media laggard. And by next week, the attention economy will have shifted its focus to the next goofy thing.