Ethics and the Ice Bucket Challenge

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.

7 thoughts on “Ethics and the Ice Bucket Challenge

    • A powerful and emotional piece, Karen. Thanks for the link. This is a story I doubt many of the participants in Ice Bucket have seen, but they may yet. After all, ALS has a pretty big database now thanks to all the Ice Bucket donors. They’re now in a good place to begin telling the people stories like this one.

      The gimmick helped to assemble the audience, now ALS needs a strategy to keep them in the family and to turn some of them into true believers. It’s a challenge that calls for great PR counsel.

  1. The notion of intent is a very interesting one, Bill. So far, I’ve avoided being nominated, and hope not to be, because 1) I have no desire to videotape myself doing this and sharing it online, and 2) donating to ALS (which has not touched my life) would mean that I potentially could not support organizations that support things that have touched my life. However, I think that any ethical issue is on the participant, not on the ALS organization. I just spoke to a colleague who was challenged, and before she participated she read up on ALS, watched videos done by those affected by ALS, and came to the conclusion that it was something she wanted to support. Thus, I believe she’s going to donate rather than do the challenge, but I was encouraged by her due diligence. As for the celebs who have participated, I’d say that they were doubtless looking for the exposure, but some, like Charlie Sheen, used their star power to encourage larger donations from others like them. So, have I made any real progress analyzing this from an ethical standpoint? Not likely. I would say, though, that those who donated funds rather than have ice poured on them on camera were probably the ones ALS was wanting to reach anyway.

  2. Great to hear from you, Art. Hope all is well. I also have not been nominated for the challenge — but I think that’s because of my snarky online personality.

    Like you, my family and I have not been touched by ALS, and that’s true of most. This disease has a low profile because it’s not widespread. And let’s face it, ALSA will never have the resources to compete with Komen, et. al. Few people know what ALS is or how it affects people. I hope this campaign is changing things, but I’m not yet convinced.

    I don’t know the backstory on Ice Bucket. I suspect the discussion concluded with: “What the hell. Let’s try it. We got nothing to lose.” So there’s another lesson for us all: Social media is powerful, and it’s still inexpensive to use.

    Bottom line: It’s a story with a happy ending for ALSA. I hope no one in that organization ever feels guilty about tapping the narcissistic nature of social media. Those with wet heads also benefited from the ego trip if nothing else. And as you point out, some actually took the time to learn about ALS.

    But to your point, we should never ignore the “intent” element in any ethics discussion. And that’s the primary message of those who criticize this campaign.

    Anyone who would accuse ALSA of anything but good and ethical intentions is simply off base. It was great campaign — even if I did have roll my eyes 50 times a day and pray that no one nominated me (because I ain’t doin’ it). The real test of ethics and reputation for ALSA is yet to come. How will the organization put this windfall to use and how will they communicate it using human stories? I would love to work on that campaign — and I’m sure you would, too.

  3. My grandfather died of ALS and it was terrible to watch as the paralysis reduced him over about two years from an intelligent, healthy man in his early 60s to being unable to speak or move. So I’m glad the ALS Association is getting funds that, I hope, will fund innovative research projects. Often, research in less common diseases leads to new therapies for more common ailments, so the potential benefit to society is great. Our country’s largest source of funding for medical research, the National Institutes of Health, has seen its budget decline by about 24 percent in real dollars over the last decade, resulting in funding only one out of every six high-quality research proposals deserving support. If we really want to make a difference against ALS, cancer, Alzheimers, and other diseases, we ought to proverbially threaten to dump a cargo plane of ice water over Congress to get them to increase the budget of the NIH.

  4. Very good subject Bill. There might be a better focus still for the ethical question:

    Not condemning nor praising ALSA Society (if memory serves, a year ago at this time social media was all a buzz about Miley Cyrus and twerking … this is much better), but, like you, I lament the narcissism we’re seeing in some social media “trends” in 2014.

    Any good PR practitioner has to give this campaign high marks for strategy and execution.

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