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To Ice or Not to Ice

If you’ve been online recently or watched the news on TV, chances are you’ve seen a spot or two about the “ALS Ice Bucket Challenge”, courtesy of the ALS Association (ALS as in Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease). I first heard about this a week ago on a local sports radio station of all things; the sportscaster was concerned that there was a lot of people dumping buckets of ice on their heads but no money actually going into the coffers to fight this devastating illness.

Doing my homework—remember, RESEARCH is one of the foundation stones of public relations!—I discovered that the challenge is to either donated $100 to ALS or reenact the final seconds of a Super Bowl victory where you’re the winning coach, i.e. have a big ol’ bucket of ice water dumped on your head.

Then you’re encouraged to post your pix and video of getting doused with ice on Twitter and FACEBOOK and YOUTUBE or whatever online service you use to chat up family, friends and in most cases, total strangers we call “friends.”

Since that time, I’ve noted a variety of people posting on FACEBOOK and other social media platforms, either coming out in support of the challenge or against it. Afterall, as this blog article on SLATE.com indicates, getting doused in ice is the ALTERNATIVE to actually giving money to ALS. Of course, some folks do donate either way, and evidently millions of dollars have been raised. And that’s a good thing.

The question is, is this really the best way to go about raising funds and awareness about a serious illness? Admittedly, the campaign is a bit of genius in that it taps into the current run-amok-narcissism that plagues our nation, often manifest in people posting videos of themselves doing all sorts of moronic, nonsensical, MTV-JACKASS-style stunts to satiate a very unhidden desire to “go viral” and become “famous,” or maybe win big bucks on “America’s Funniest Home Videos” if that show is even still on the air (and yes, that’s a run on sentence, and I don’t care. It makes my point.)

The problem with this though is it seems to do little or nothing to raise understanding and awareness about ALS. I wonder how many people who are posting videos even know what ALS is? As the SLATE.com article notes, very little seems to appear in the postings about ALS itself. Perhaps the “challenge” should be to either pay $100, or be dumped on with ice, or to post a video online explaining why the fight against ALS is important and encouraging people to donate.

But of course, watching someone lecture about an illness doesn’t make entertaining viewing. On the other hand, watching news celebrity Matt Lauer or the Orioles own manager Buck Showalter take a bucket of ice to the head is. And there in lies a very important truth about human beings that should never be lost on any PR professional: PEOPLE. WANT. TO. BE. ENTERTAINED.

You may have the greatest truth in the world to share, but if you come across as dull, monotone, some guy in a suit behind a podium (unless you’re President Obama giving the State of the Union address, and even then, A LOT of people are going to switch to ESPN Sportscenter), people aren’t going to listen.

We live in a tremendously VISUAL society, so much so that scientists speculate that in the centuries to follow, given current technological trends, you can expect future humans to have much bigger eyes than we do now…in fact, millennia from now we may look a lot like those “bug-eyed aliens” that so enjoy kidnapping backwoods folks and probing their…digestive systems, as it were.

As a result, if you want to stand out, if you want your cause to elicit something beyond a momentous yawn, you’ve got to tap into the current American desire to do strange and unusual things and to record them on video for all to see. Clearly, it works as in the past month, ALS has seen its contributions go from thousands to millions.

But it still…feels wrong. First off, it’s probably not the best thing in the world to do health-wise to have large amounts of near frozen water dumped on one’s head (and I’m waiting for some smart local news person to decide that that’s an angle he/she can pursue for a health story!). But in the greater scope of things, doesn’t capitalizing on this trend in society only serve to extend it? Do we really want to become a society that stares at screens all day watching people, animals, people and animals, doing wild and crazy things, often funny, and very often—too often—dangerous, disturbing and degrading?

One might argue that the only way to shed light on some of the horrors that occur in our human society is to bring them to light…and that may be true, but often it feels more like…watching a car crash. You know you shouldn’t be watching this, but you watch anyway.

Ultimately, it comes down to this old conundrum: Do the ends justify the means? A question we need to ask ourselves, and ask ourselves more often.