Ice Bucket Challenge an example of getting across the message on a budget

The Ice Bucket Challenge went viral, raising US$150 million for the ALS Association. So what are the origins of this public health campaign, and how can others learn from it?

Oprah Winfrey, David Beckham and Mark Zuckerberg were among the 2.3 million people who tipped a bucket of ice over their heads in 2014. They then nominated three others to do the same, posting a video of the moment on social media. “The Ice Bucket Challenge” has since generated US$150 million for the ALS Association – but not many know how it started.

One man who does is social innovator Jon Duschinsky, the chief executive of the Toronto and London-based communications agency Conversation Farm, who attended Daman’s Creating Healthy Communities conference in Abu Dhabi last year to reveal the spark behind the world’s biggest viral public campaign.

He is familiar with the suffering ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) causes, as his business partner and mother-in-law both died from the disease. “It’s a horrific disease where slowly over three to five years, your body shuts down but mind is completely intact,” explains the Briton.

Three years ago, Mr Duschinsky met ALS-sufferer Steve Gleeson, a former American footballer with the New Orleans Saints, who wanted to raise awareness of the condition.

“We worked with him to create a simple film that he used to hijack the 2013 Super Bowl,” says Mr Duschinsky. The public services announcement film featured 18 NFL players and coaches speaking on the ravages of ALS, and calling for more research to find a cure.

“That film and the noise around it started a conversation, which brought together patients and families of patients with ALS who until then had really been quite alone,” he says. “A community began to come together, to say enough is enough, and to rally behind Steve.”

According to Mr Duschinsky, one summer afternoon – almost 12 months after the community had started forming – a Boston woman poured a bucket of iced water over her head. “She did it because she was so frustrated that her husband still had ALS and she could do nothing to help,” says Mr Duschinsky. Although there are conflicting accounts about the origins of the challenge, Mr Duschinsky claims the woman sent the video to an ALS sufferer who forwarded it to Steve Gleeson.

“They all shared it with their communities – because they cared and because they were a community, they shared a vision and were united by a truth,” says Mr Duschinsky, adding that the formula behind the Ice Bucket Challenge is one public health marketeers should pay heed to.

“We have one guy with an authentic truth who gave people something to do,” he explains. “A community follows around that idea and spreads it. We have come to understand this as being not the only model, but a powerful one for change.”

Someone else behind a successful public health campaign is Mick Cornett, the mayor of Oklahoma City, who motivated residents into collectively losing a million pounds (450,000 kilograms) in weight. Inspired by his own 42-pound weight loss, in 2008, Mr Cornett put Oklahoma City “on a diet”, launching a forum to track progress. By 2012, 52,000 registered members on the site had logged more than 3 million exercise miles.

“To a certain extent nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come,” says Mr Cornett, also a speaker at the Daman conference. “The community was at the right stage for this.”

Mr Cornett says he used his experience working in television to drive “a lot of media” to the website. “You might think the restaurant industry would not embrace the idea of putting the city on a diet, but most of the top restaurants immediately adopted a healthy ‘Mayor’s Special’ on their lunch menus,” he says.

What the two marketing campaigns had in common was their low cost; the messages spread organically. Companies looking to launch a public health campaign without breaking the bank should also consider a commercial link-up, says Nick Caplin, director of participation at the UK’s Amateur Swimming Association.

He adopted the strategy to boost the numbers of young swimmers in the UK, by linking up with Disney to offer Finding Dory swimming sessions. The first 50,000 kids to attend three sessions last summer received a Finding Dory branded swimming bag. “It’s about visibility, and the quickest and easiest way to do that is to spend millions of pounds on a huge marketing campaign,” he says “But that budget doesn’t exist, so it’s trying to find new and creative ways to do it.”

And what of the ALS campaign? Researchers from MinE, one of the projects to benefit from the fundraising, announced last summer they had identified a new gene associated with the disease.

“ALS had been around for about 100 years, but until very recently was ignored – there was very little money going into it, no treatment and no cure. Today there is a business plan for a cure and there is hope,” says Mr Duschinsky, who says the UAE could benefit from its own Ice Bucket-style challenge to tackle childhood obesity and diabetes. “It is white space that I would love to see the UAE spare the time, energy and focus on.”

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