Will Ice Bucket Challenge Have Lasting Value?

The editorial staff of Tom's Guide, a sister site to Live Science, takes the Ice Bucket Challenge.

The "Ice Bucket Challenge" campaign has many elements of success that are rarely achieved together: it went viral, involved celebrities and the public alike, brought a poorly understood but devastating disease to the front pages, and raised millions in donations to ALS charities.

But it is difficult to know the real value of a campaign without examining it in the context. Here are some facts that illustrate the real value of these achievements in terms of raising awareness and helping medical research for a disease that affects up to 30,000 Americans

What is 'success'?

As of today (Aug. 22), the ALS Association has received $53.3 million in donations, compared with $2.2 million donated during the same period last year. The amount raised so far is even more than the organization's total revenue last year. In terms of the absolute money raised, the campaign has been an absolute success. [Infographic: Who Donates to Charity?]

But for organizations that depend on a continuous support of donors, a one-time spike in revenue is only part of the picture. Another factor to consider is the number of people who publicly show their support, for example, by dumping ice on their heads, versus the number who make a financial contribution, and may continue to do so, said Kirk Kristofferson, a researcher at the Sauder School of Business in Vancouver, Canada, who studies marketing and prosocial behavior.

If a fundraising campaign has a high percentage of people who voice their support without actually donating that could raise the problem of "slacktivism," which is the practice of engaging in virtual support such as "liking" a charity's page on Facebook, without having any real-world effect.

Slacktivism is a problem because people who say they support a good cause feel good about themselves and will be even less likely to actually do a good deed or support the cause in a tangible way, Kristofferson told Live Science.

And this percentage may be high for the Ice Bucket Challenge. Between June 1 and Aug. 13, the first two weeks of the campaign, people shared more than 1.2 million videos on Facebook, according to the New York Times. But during that time, the ALS Association received donations from about 107,000 new donors.

But Kristofferson said he is now noticing a change in how people are accepting the challenge. "What many people have been doing is now starting to do both [dump the ice on their heads, as well as donate money], and challenge others to do the same. So now there's a call to action and there's a public statement that I've done what the campaign actually meant to do."

Will the donations keep coming?

There are two main theories about what happens after people are introduced to a cause such as a poorly understood disease.

One theory is based on what marketers call the foot-in-the-door phenomenon, a classic sales tactic, Kristofferson said. "If you agree to something little, then you are more likely to agree to something big. So if you are willing to dump ice, then you will be more likely to make a donation."

But the second theory, based on "moral licensing" phenomenon, which makes the opposite prediction, suggests that dumping the ice water makes one even less likely to donate than if they hadn't taken the challenge.

People may think, "When I do something positive or charitable or prosocial, and actually feel better about myself, I've done my part now, and am allowed to be selfish," Kristofferson said.

Research done by Kristofferson and his colleagues suggests one thing that determines which of these theories win, is how observable people's actions are, or in other words, whether people do charitable work in public or in private. In their study published in April in the journal of Consumer Research, the researchers showed that people would be more likely to donate if they have previously supported a cause in private, and not in public.

Will the money make a difference for people with ALS?

The ALS Association says its missions fall into three broad categories: Research, care services and working with patients, and advocating for policy changes to address the needs of ALS patients.

Theassociation's 2013 revenue totaled about $29 million, and it gave out about $7 million of that in research grants, according to the association's financial report. The money funded 98 research projects that aim to better understand the nature of ALS and develop therapies.

The money will not be enough to find a cure for ALS, especially if the donations stop coming after everyone has had their video made, said Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, chairman of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

"There's a long road to go," Emanuel told Bloomberg TV. "As an example of social media and viral marketing, this is amazing. As an example of transforming biomedical research and Lou Gehrig's disease, one needs to be a bit more hesitant and skeptical."

Moreover, the raised money can make up for only a small part of what the National Institutes of Health has lost in recent budget cuts. The agency's budget fell to $30.2 billion in 2014, more than a billion dollars less than what it had in 2010.

What is 'awareness'?

Some critics of the Ice Bucket Challenge have pointed out that there's actually not much information and education about ALS in the campaign and that people don't really learn about the disease. [Facts & Symptoms of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)]

But it's possible that the mere exposure to a new concept, such as ALS, makes people more likely to pay attention the next time the subject comes up.

"There's ample research to support that," Kristofferson said. Exposure to information may make people more likely to be in favor of a brand, product or social cause, he said.

However, learning detailed information about a disease, and the challenges that people with that disease face, is also important, and will help people become more engaged with a cause, Kristofferson said.

Email Bahar Gholipour. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Originally published on Live Science.

Bahar Gholipour
Staff Writer
Bahar Gholipour is a staff reporter for Live Science covering neuroscience, odd medical cases and all things health. She holds a Master of Science degree in neuroscience from the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris, and has done graduate-level work in science journalism at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. She has worked as a research assistant at the Laboratoire de Neurosciences Cognitives at ENS.