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: Ice Bucket Challenge: When Public Health Awareness Campaigns Work

Ice Bucket Challenge: When Public Health Awareness Campaigns Work

Managing Editor

I'm sure that by now you've heard of the Ice Bucket Challenge. Maybe you've been challenged. Maybe you've dumped ice water on your head. Maybe you've just seen the myriad of posts on social media of others doing this.

Quickly, for those who have somehow missed what's been going on for the past few weeks, the Ice Bucket Challenge consists of having someone dump ice water on your head. Alternatively, you can donate $100 to the ALS Association. Some versions of the challenge include the ice water AND a donation of a small amount. Some people have chosen a different organization or charity for their donation. The challenged then challenges new people, who have 24 hours to accept the challenge or donate. And the cycle continues.

The videos have spread like wildfire on social media, and in the first few weeks of August, the Ice Bucket challenge has become a "thing." More than 1 million challenges have been posted on Facebook. And maybe you find that annoying. Maybe you think it's "stupid" or "pointless." Maybe you're tired of the videos crowding your News Feed on Facebook or taking up too much space on your feeds on Twitter or Instagram.

Some call it slactivism (essentially doing something on social media that makes it look like you support a cause without actually having to do much). Others say it's narcissistic and just for show and that it won't make a difference for ALS.

But you see, when you post on various social media outlets about being annoyed by this, you're doing EXACTLY what the originator of this "challenge" wanted you to do. You're talking about ALS, also called Lou Gehrig's disease. You're helping to raise awareness of this progressive neurodegenerative disease, for which there is no cure and no known cause. Approximately 5,600 people are diagnosed each year with ALS, and according to the ALS Association, as many as 30,000 people are living with the disease at any given point.   

As the idea began to spread, and more and more people, including celebrities, started taking the challenge, something really cool happened: donations to support ALS increased. Not by a little, either. According to the ALS Association, $13.3 million has been donated since July 29. During the same timeframe last year, the association saw $1.7 million in donations. Moreover, there have been about 260,000 NEW donors to the cause. How many of them donated because they were challenged or simply because they saw these challenge videos and thought, "hey, that's a good cause."

There's been quite a lot of chatter online about this challenge, from discussion about how such challenges can--and do-- help raise awareness of public health issues to blogs (like this one!) talking about why this challenge worked. Of all of them, this post in Forbes summed up this topic perfectly for me. As the author discusses why the challenge has been a success, he ends the post with this: "the moment when I decided the whole thing was worth it--came in the form of a question from my 16-year-old: "Dad, what is ALS?"

And isn't that the point? If these videos made someone ask that question, look it up themselves, or give two minutes worth of thought to something they wouldn't have otherwise, then the challenge is working. As someone who has been working in the field of health communications for more than a decade, I'll be the first to admit that it's a tricky formula. Sometimes a campaign is a bust, and sometimes, when the stars align, it's magic.

To learn more about ALS and how you can help support the ALS Association, visit the ALS donations page.

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The Healthy(ist) blog is a platform to share, learn about, and debate topics related to public and social health, scientific research, health communications, and behavior change.
We invite and encourage anyone interested in current public health and health communication trends and issues to join MMG's contributing bloggers in adding their voice to the ongoing discussion about how we can advance health, together.

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