Its origin may be nebulous, but its impact is colossal. Since permeating social media this month, the “Ice Bucket Challenge” has boosted the ALS Association’s fundraising nearly twenty-fold when compared to money raised in August of last year. But in addition to attracting some 600,000 new donors, the viral charity stunt has provoked a bit of controversy, too.
Bon Jovi, Ryan Seacrest, Jeff Bezos, and Gwen Stefani, among others, have all willingly doused themselves in gelid water recently, helping to raise an unprecedented $31.5 million to fight ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Celebrity participants are ’80s heartthrobs, pouty reggae bandleaders, and former U.S. presidents with little common ground—except, of course, their celebrity. And that’s where the controversy starts.
The number of high-profile participants, and how they are choosing to participate, has perturbed one corner of the Internet. The complaints take shape on Reddit and YouTube, accusing celebrities of self-indulgent videos that do little to unpack the gravity of ALS, a neurological disorder that leaves victims paralyzed and dramatically shortens lifespans. And those who take issue with the ice bucket challenge have found an unexpected spokesperson in Jackass alum Steve-O.
Steve-O shared a brief video of himself carrying out the challenge. He unloads a trash bin of ice water onto his shirtless torso without flinching (he’s done worse) and leaves viewers with a judgment: “I’m all about helping causes, but did this raise any awareness at all?” he asks.
In a consequent Facebook post, Steve-O elaborates: “When you consider the countless A-list celebrities who have actively gotten behind this cause by posting videos—the fact that not more than fifteen million dollars has been raised is a tragedy... most of them just poured water over their heads and named three random people. Had all those celebrities given this cause any thought, hundreds of millions of dollars might have been raised, and a whole lot more awareness.”
In sifting through the glut of celebrity challenge videos, Steve-O’s criticism proves apt. A majority of celebrities who take part in the challenge are light on the ALS education and heavy on the self-promotion—often, the video seems less like a public service announcement and more like an attempt to tickle fans.
In the video featuring Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters, there’s a lengthy, farcical homage to the Steven King-inspired horror flick Carrie—but no mention of ALS or its debilitating effects until a brief slide at the end. Viewers leave with a grin, but are no wiser about the frightening symptoms of ALS.
A majority of celebrities who take part in the challenge are light on the ALS education and heavy on the self-promotion—often, the video seems less like a public service announcement and more like an attempt to tickle fans.
Similarly, Dr. Dre enlists a cadre of cinematographers and boom-mic operators to capture his challenge, but pays little attention to the disease behind it; and when Thor’s Chris Hemsworth takes up the gauntlet, he garbles the acronym (“thank you, Robert Downey Jr., for the ASL ice bucket challenge”). Celebrity participants like Zachary Levi—who devotes substantial time to discussing ALS—are outliers.
One nabob even seems to have commandeered the challenge to reignite an old grudge. In his rendition Charlie Sheen stands in a foyer and overturns a bucket filled with checks, not ice water.
“I’m hereby calling out Jon Cryer, Chuck Lorre, and Ashton Kutcher to identically do what I just did,” Sheen says to his estranged Two and a Half Men former colleagues and replacement. Sheen’s take on the challenge is generous, but it’s also self-serving, hinting at a symbiotic relationship. I'll give you $10,000, and you provide me with a platform to continue my feud, he implies.
But when the end result is tens of millions raised, do the shades of vanity or petty grudges truly matter? Not really, according to Andrew Watt, the president and CEO of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP).
“Yes, a celebrity is getting favorable coverage out of it—but in doing that, they’re also pushing considerable revenue in the direction of the ALS foundation,” Watt tells The Daily Beast. “And they’re raising awareness of Lou Gehrig’s disease, which is not something people are particularly familiar with.”
Watt also notes that celebrities aren’t the engine behind the campaign's success, but rather scope. “I think what’s driving the campaign… is the friend-to-friend [aspect], and incredibly good use of social media,” he says.
Steve-O’s complaint is one the ALS Association is familiar with, but the nonprofit’s leaders don’t agree.
“Only about half of Americans two weeks ago even knew what ALS was, and now we have an incredible amount of celebrities saying ‘ALS’ and raising awareness,” says Carrie Munk, a spokeswoman with the ALS Association. “And the monetary contributions are absolutely amazing. Whether you do the challenge, or donate, or do both, it’s all making a difference.”