Nearly a million people soaking themselves in ice cold water and sharing the video. Over $100 million raised. A global craze. A new phrase that enters the language. All the makings of a global case study.
The Ice Bucket Challenge was THE most talked about social phenomenon of 2014. Oh, I should have said “The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge”. Because like so many great 'cause' campaigns, sometimes the activity becomes more memorable than the reason. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was a tremendous success but would have been so much better if it meant a long-term major change in the state of ALS patients. Well today, 21 June, is ALS Day, and a chance to rethink and refocus for those of us interested in helping to end ALS.
With my partners at Significance Systems we undertook a simple piece of research using their artificial intelligence platform to look at what the was happening with the narratives around ALS, The Ice Bucket Challenge and The End ALS movement in Japan. The platform searches and reads all the content around the subject, defines the strongest content around the most important narratives, ranks those narratives and also measures the likely emotional response from the content. We asked the platform to report on those three narratives in Japan (in Japanese) and in the English-speaking world. You can access the report here.
Without getting into details, it is telling us:
- That fortunately, the narratives around all three subjects in the English-speaking world are timeless, meaning they seem to have some long-term, deep engagement and can be expected to persist. Good news that the issues remain important.
- That the 'Ice Bucket Challenge' has fallen off the charts in Japan, where it is now fading away as irrelevant.
- That 'End ALS' is a transformative narrative in Japan, with pretty strong content. That means it seems that it is cracking intense engagement and could be transforming the world. More importantly, when you look at emotional reaction, this is a narrative that causes a lot of anxiety and bitterness.
For the last six years the small team in Japan leading the End ALS cause has been trying to get a strong reaction. To advocate, provoke and—yes—shame people into paying attention. Led by Hiro Fujita and supported by my ex-colleagues at McCann Japan and other volunteers, the End ALS cause continues to attract attention with campaigns that win awards in Japan and also get attention around the world.
What is End ALS all about? In the short term it was and is all about awareness. But more specifically, it's about getting the Japanese government to change some regulations. First of all, for current ALS patients, where technology makes a huge difference in allowing them to live more normal lives. Access to better wheelchairs, or eye-reader systems allowing them to use computers after they lose control of their limbs, for example. Unfortunately, this is mostly seen as a luxury under existing Japanese government insurance guidelines. So End ALS is working to raise funds to deliver these technologies for patients who cannot afford them while pressuring the government to change regulations.
In the longer term, End ALS is all about gaining awareness of research like that being undertaken by Nobel Prize-winning Shinya Yamanaka into iPS cells ad the potential cure for various terminal diseases like ALS, and encouraging the government to support experimentation to find to a cure sooner. The activities come in all forms. Go here to learn more.
But on ALS Day 2017, we could be doing a lot more. Yes, the Ice Bucket Challenge was great. Yes, the End ALS team does a lot and gains attention with very little resources. The problem is something that all causes suffer from: time and distance.
The Ice Bucket Challenge was three years ago. Of course when I tell people I helped a little with End ALS and awareness of the challenge when it happened, they like to talk about it. And of course all too often we hear people saying, “can you give my brand/cause an Ice Bucket Challenge” campaign (good luck with that). What all of us helping with ALS awareness don’t hear enough of is, “Let me come up with the next challenge”.
There is a thing called the Brad Pitt Effect. The story goes that when New Orleans was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, there was an immediate outpouring of help and support. After a few months, another disaster somewhere else took the headlines. But two years later New Orleans’ ongoing need for help hit the headlines again when Pitt appeared on building sites, actually helping to hammer homes together. He said that although he had been involved earlier in fundraising, he waited to actually appear for two years precisely so that he could draw attention to the ongoing needs of the stricken community. People need to be reminded that disasters, charities and people in need take years, or decades, to recover.
So here, in the very week that the advertising and marketing world’s creative leadership gathers in Cannes, is an idea (and one for all other creative, content, effectiveness and industry award shows): How about reminding people of the great cause campaigns of recent years, like the Ice Bucket Challenge, and giving them a reboot. Too many campaigns are award winners one year and then forgotten. The core issue remains, but the interest has flagged.
ALS is not going away. A cure is a long way off. Patients' suffering is intense. How about another go—another challenge?
PS. My good friend and colleague Hiro Fujita has inspired many in the advertising industry and the public with his story. If you have not done so, read his book 99% Thank You. Or just watch this TEDxTokyo video, where he and I and some friends explain his story and passion to End ALS.
And again thanks to the team at End ALS, led by Miyoko Ohki and the ongoing support of McCann Japan.
Dave McCaughan is chief strategy officer of Ai.agency and a storyteller at Bibliosexual.