Ice bucket challenge: Wet T-shirt contest or charity game changer?

Don’t tip those buckets just yet. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has prompted debate after debate over its true entertainment factor

Eman El-Shenawi

Published: Updated:

Its premise is simple. Pour a bucket of sloshy iced water over yourself in the name of charity. Add a few celebrity names, and bingo, it’s a viral internet craze.

But wait, don’t tip those buckets just yet. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has prompted debate after debate over its real entertainment factor and whether it truly translates into donations for the amyotrophic lateral sclerosis cause.

First, this all shone a blinding light onto how the fleeting craze gained popularity and quick clicks on social media and news sites alike. But while it was positively being seen as a game changer for the nonprofit charitable world, it was also being described as a celebrity “wet t-shirt contest” with sexy, scandalous attempts “winning” more views.

How did the phenomenon begin and evolve into a craze which has led some to create a diagram to explain the “six degrees of the ice bucket challenge?”

Celebrity tide

According to U.S. media, it all began with a man named Pete Frates, a former Boston College who was diagnosed with ALS in 2011. On July 31 of this year, he challenged some friends and celebrities (including NFL quarterbacks Tom Brady and Matt Ryan) to take the ice bucket challenge to “strike out ALS.”

And it worked.

Since the ALS Association began tracking the campaign's progress on July 29, it has raised more than $53.3 million from 1.1 million new donors in what is one of the most viral philanthropic social media campaigns in history.

"This level of unprecedented giving is (something) I don't think this country has seen before outside of a disaster or emergency," said ALS Association spokesperson Carrie Munk. "We had no idea it would get to this point."

Many people will remember the challenge beginning with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg nominating Microsoft’s Bill Gates to complete the challenge. He accepted. Then a host of famous faces including Oprah Winfrey, George W. Bush, Ashton Kutcher, Gwen Stefani, Selena Gomez, David Beckham, Steven Spielberg and Jennifer Lopez took part.

Even Russia’s Vladimir Putin was nominated (that challenge was NOT accepted).

“In order to have such resonance with the wider public, you are not always going to have just an altruistic call to fundraising,” Taufiq Rahim, the Executive Director of Globesight, a Dubai-based strategy advisory firm focusing on social impact.

“You have to play on social trends and use public attitudes, sometimes interests in celebrity culture to raise those funds. The impact here is a net positive,” Rahim told Al Arabiya News.

In the Arab world, Egyptian bellydancer and TV personality Fifi Abdo even doused herself with an ice bucket, following Lebanese singers Haifa Wehbe and Najwa Karam, Lebanese-American model Gigi Hadid and Egyptian Chelsea midfielder Mohamed Salah.

But alternative messages soon gathered pace.


In Lebanon, a group of people posting a video of them attempting the challenge, but just as they tipped the bucket, the water you were expecting to gush out didn’t, highlighting frequent water supply shortages in the country.

A video of one Palestinian sparking the “sand bucket challenge” soon became widely shared to raise awareness on human suffering in the ongoing Gaza conflict.

“What does cold water have to do with us? It’s for some disease,” a viral campaign that aims to spread awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

“But we have Gaza’s children. And that is not what they feel,” the man says.

“They be sitting in their homes, and suddenly it collapses... like this,” he adds, dumping the sand over his head.

On Twitter, it’s clear not everybody is a fan of the ice bucket challenge. Memes have been created pointing at the large amounts of water being wasted and a #NoIceBucketChallenge hashtag is being used by those not impressed with the “vanity” of it all.

“No need to waste a precious resource like water so they know that you have donated money,” one Twitter user wrote, with another mocking the celebrities who took part.

“Ice Bucket Challenge: LOOK at me LOOK at me, I'm a starved-for-attention idiot .. oh yeah, charity & stuff [sic]”

Some have even posted instructions on follow through with the #NoIceBucketChallenge.

According to the New York Times, more than 1.2 million videos of people dumping water on their head have been posted to Facebook. The Washington Post’s Jason Samenow did the math.

“If an average bucket contains 4 gallons of water, about 5 million gallons of water have dunked heads from coast to coast. That’s the equivalent of about 120,000 baths or, in weather terms, over half an inch of rain falling on a 300 acre slab of land. Think of a summer downpour dousing the National Mall, or for west-coasters, Disneyland.”

But like in any campaign, there are drawbacks, explains Rahim.

"In this case, it’s the use of water given that many people have a lack of access to fresh water. But all of these campaigns are imperfect. It’s all about learning from these campaigns for the next time.

“I think the campaign will slowly die down – for now. It will be interesting to see what is the next campaign that can replicate this using a different viral fundraising tactic,” he added.