I don’t believe in kicking puppies. On the other hand, I believe that every worth cause, irrespective of geography, political affiliation should be supported. But when there is an egregious over-display of marketing tactics, brain-numbing imitation and exhortation to do acts of ‘charity’, I believe it is time to step back and question the premise on which the campaigns are based. The most recent meme of the ‘Ice Bucket challenge’ is a classic case of such a tactic. While it is great that ALS Foundation has raised some money through this – estimated at about $100 million, I believe that despite the phenomenal success, there are some serious issues with the campaign and its methodology. At the root of this campaign is a lot of narcissism and self-indulgence, which takes away from the actual aims of the campaign – to bring awareness about the disease and raise money.
Firstly, the Ice Bucket challenge focuses on a , i.e., throwing water over oneself- and has become more important than awareness about the disease itself or even more than the primary purpose of why it was started, in the first place – to raise money. Agreed that the campaign has surpassed all expectations and raised about $100 mn, but the question remains: How much of the money raised will be used for pursuing research and development of the disease, hence actually impacting those effected by the disease, and how much is used up for other purposes – more marketing and publicity? Whilst the campaign’s success has already spawned similar imitations such as the Rice Bucket Challenge in India, the narcissism inherent in the campaign is actually a downer for many. The ‘challenge’ becomes more about the donor or the ‘challenger’ and less and less about the cause – ALS in this case- and the recipient or the disease that the campaign is trying to address. By taking away the discourse of the campaign from the disease and those who are suffering, and making it all about the participants, the Ice bucket challenge distracts from the real motivation for doing the act.
Secondly, there are limits to the amount of attention and celebrity endorsements that this campaign can garner. As this Op-Ed in the New York Times argues, celebrity branding of certain causes may not actually help it. Researchers Professor Dan Brockington, of The University of Manchester, Professor Spensor Henson, University of Sussex, and Dr Martin Scott, University of East Anglia, show this in their survey of over 1000 individuals in the United Kingdom (U.K). They show that over that 66% of those surveyed could not link any celebrity with a list of seven well-known charities and aid organizations (NGOs) the researchers mentioned. Further, they add :”Our survey found that while awareness of major NGOs brands was high, awareness of celebrity advocates for those brands was low,” they said in their article, published online in the International Journal of Cultural Studies. Marketing and Public Relations professionals often confuse brand visibility with brand loyalty and association. While many people would remember that Angelina Jolie does a lot for orphans around the world, the same number may not know that she is the UN’s global goodwill Ambassador. All celebrities who have supported the cause including Bill Gates, Justin Beiber and LeBron James seem to have contributed their bit to the cause. But how does one know if they did it more to promote themselves or the ‘cause’? While intentions cannot be measured and there is no foolproof way to figure out how much the celebrities actually do things for a cause and how much of their self-interest is involved; it is safe to say that celebrity endorsements are short-lived and people tend to forget, rather quickly. However, the ‘social’ aspect of this campaign has worked, and that is a valuable lesson for other charities to adopt – especially when it comes to fundraising techniques. Peer pressure in this case – to do good- may not be entirely wrong, after all.
Finally, the Ice Bucket challenge represents a sort of ‘mimetic desire’, a concept that French philosopher Rene Girard has written about. This desire refers to an almost irrational desire to possess something that the ‘other’ has. And in effect, this irrationality guides much of consumer behavior. We want a fancy phone because our friend has one and it would be ‘desired’ by others, or a fancy car because it is desired by others. Although in the short-term the campaign has succeeded and it is a sign of the growing need of creativity and innovation in fund-raising, the long-term consequences of such tactics are likely to be negative. Among other things that can go wrong in the near future are donor fatigue, lack of genuine awareness of the disease and an almost mindless tendency to imitate others. These are not a good sign for a thoughtful campaign that address a very serious issue. At this level, the Ice Bucket Challenge falls short. Its success in raising money should not take away from the fact that it is based on a faulty, yet sexy premise – replacing the responsibility that is truly ours – to address a deadly disease- by an almost narcissistic drive to feel important and get a sense that we have done ‘something’, by doing something silly.
Even though the Ice Bucket Challenge seems to about altruism, it also seems to be tapping into people’s narcissism and self-indulgence. This may be good for the ALF Foundation, but not good for philanthropy as a whole.This trend is indicating to donors and potential fund-raisers that the donor has to be ‘engaged’ in ways that could amount to ludicrous – just to get them to sign a check or donate money.