Ice Bucket Challenge: A Health Communication Win

By Tracy Worrell

Tracy2 What does ice water have to do with a neurodegenerative disease? Nothing. What do viral videos have to do with raising awareness and millions of dollars for charity? Everything. Just ask the ALS Association.

Or, ask the skeptics, critics and detractors, after all these videos aren’t curing a disease and some people aren’t even donating money. It’s just about narcissism and wet T-shirt contests. Wrong. The #alsicebucketchallenge and viral campaigns like this are meeting the No. 1 challenge of health communication, raising awareness.

Recently, in my Health Communication class at RIT, students discussed how “lame” or “uninteresting” the majority of health messages are to them. How they tune out or forget the message almost immediately after exposure.

Health campaign practitioners struggle with this on a daily basis. How does one get the message of disease across to the larger population, particularly for illnesses that are unknown? While dumping ice water on heads may not be the “go to” health campaign move it stars two groups that most people will listen to: celebrities and more importantly peers.

Millions have watched celebrities from Oprah to Katy Perry dump their buckets. Even more have witnessed their friends, for better or worse (see some of the more awkward videos), participate.

Dr Tracy Worrell takes the #alsicebucketchallenge

My best friend challenged me to dump and donate, of course I complied. I challenged my husband, brother and nephew, each one complied (albeit rather grudgingly). I then posted my video, showing my 363 friends and tagging the aforementioned nominees. The potential reach of my own narcissism – over 1,500 friends now see that their peers are talking about ALS.

Not only has awareness of ALS increased but donations have skyrocketed as well. The ALS organization reports it received $100.9 million in donations between July 29 and Aug. 29 of this year. In the same time period last year it received $2.9 million … an increase of over 3,000 percent. Here, the New York ALS has raised $4.3 million compared to $131,560 in 2013.

Not only does this awareness increase donations, but it puts ALS on the “map” when it comes to government policies, grant consideration and interest in the field of research.

This has been great news for ALS and a great study for health communication researchers. Social media may, in fact, be a stronger tool to utilize in health campaigns than anyone realized.

What’s disappointing in all of this is the number of “news” sources that belittle it all. That the challenge won’t “solve real problems” or people are only donating to the ALS now and one should “leave the fads to hula hoopers.”

My professional opinion: Get over it. Let ALS have one “win” for a disease that kills everyone who is diagnosed with it.

To donate:

The ALS website

The Charity Navigator website



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