Ice Bucket Challenge Accepted

Curator's Note

This past summer, the Internet was abuzz with the ice bucket challenge. In case you happened to spend the entirety of June, July, and August of 2014 in a WiFi-less desert, this challenge consisted of posting a video of pouring ice water over one’s head and then nominating three people to do the same within a twenty-four hour period, or else the nominees must donate money to an organization promoting ALS awareness and research (usually the ALS Association, though others received massive funding as well). One population that passionately embraced the challenge was celebrities.

Taking part in the ice bucket challenge provided a win-win for stars by presenting a socially committed star persona as well as by providing an opportunity to link themselves to other celebrities and raise awareness for a variety of collaborations. Take for example, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s video, in which she nominates Vice President Joe Biden (who respectfully declined in favor of a donation). By selecting him as one of her nominees, she is further strengthening the public’s connection of her persona to that of the office of the Vice President, a role she holds in the HBO show “VEEP.” Similarly, stars such as Robert Downey Jr. (who nominated Thor, aka Chris Hemsworth, his Avengers costar, and Vincent D’Onofrio, his The Judge support), Chris Pratt (who nominated “Parks & Rec costar Nick Offerman and Guardians of the Galaxy costar Dave Bautista), and Iggy Azalea (who nominated collaborators Charli XCX and Rita Ora) used the videos to link (and thereby promote) upcoming projects.

Several companies even promoted their stars’ videos through their official YouTube accounts. Tom Cruise and director Chris McQuarrie represented the cast and crew of Mission Impossible 5 in a video uploaded to YouTube through the official MissionImpossible channel. The Muppets monopolized on the press given to the challenge by having Kermit the Frog nominate his Muppets Most Wanted costars, Tina Fey (whose video is also released through The Muppets YouTube channel), Ricky Gervais, and Ty Burrell. These three celebrities then used the ice bucket video as a platform for promoting aspects of their pre-existing star personas, Tina Fey’s motherhood comedy seen previously in her American Express advertisements, Ricky Gervais’ seemingly mean-spirited puncturing of fellow celebrities, and Ty Burrell’s promotion of University of Oregon athletics.

Stars’ ice bucket challenge videos received far more hits than any non-celebrity, and therefore presumably had a much greater impact and raising awareness and funds for ALS. There is a fine line between charity and coopting publicity, and I would be fascinated to hear from readers if and where celebrity ice bucket challenges crossed that line.


I'm not sure if I agree with the idea of "a fine line between charity and co-opting publicity." Is there really? The space of philanthropy has always been one of mixed and competing motives. As anyone with their name on a building, or a park or an endowment well knows, philanthropy is a platform. Skillful and savvy non-profits, and the development professionals they work with, know how to craft an appealing giving experience. The best fundraising campaigns advance non-profit mission, while also offering something in return (be it a gala, a feel-good story, a photo with the President, or cross-promotional potential.) Philanthropy has always been conspicuous by nature, its the fact that we are all now joining in the conversation that is new and remarkable.

Hello, thanks for commenting! Sorry that it has taken me a while to respond. Your points about public philanthropy and its benefits for the benefactors are well noted. I do think, however, that the general public prefers to think of philanthropy as an entirely selfless venture. In their newest book, Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn discuss this fear/discomfort with the idea of the business of philanthropy. I think the most important takeaway from their book is that though it may seem counterintuitive to invest in training, educating, and paying (well) non-profit workers, often the best results come through the marriage of charity and business acumen. I think all (stars, publicity teams, an enthusiastic audience, and ALS organizations) benefited from these videos.

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