Why no one owns the Ice Bucket Challenge concept

I won't bother explaining what the Ice Bucket Challenge is because there's no way you're not familiar with it by now -- every Facebook feed in the land is currently crammed full of videos of people dousing themselves in ice water. A few of the Computerlovers have even had a go.

There's no denying that this fundraising initiative has become a viral phenomenon, just like the #nomakeupselfie before it. But within the digital marketing industry all this freezing cold frivolity has been tempered by claims that Macmillan have apparently 'hijacked' the Ice Bucket Challenge from ALS, by not only actively encouraging ice bucketers to donate to them online but also by running paid-for ad campaigns on Google and Facebook.

But personally I would argue that it's not as clear cut as that; the way I see it, the Ice Bucket Challenge doesn't actually belong to anyone. Because the moment the first mention made it into the digital world (wherever and whenever that might have been -- there's some debate about whether it actually was ALS who came up with the idea), it instantly became public property. Let me explain...

The fact is that, once an idea like this is out there, the originator has absolutely no control over how it evolves and develops. This applies on both a 'Johnny Public' level (see more creative takes on the traditional, like Patrick Stewart's Ice Bucket Challenge) and on a brand level too.

Whether it's a complex parody, witty comeback or just a simple tweet, brands piggyback on other people's ideas all the time. A recent high-profile example of this is Virgin Holiday's #ShowOff ads created in response to Three's #holidayspam campaign (and it's also worth noting that PG Tips have been quick to pull together their own Ice Bucket Challenge video). Does it feel a bit more questionable when you're talking about a charity going directly up against another? Of course it does -- but it's tough out there.

Charities are having to be more and more inventive and responsive when it comes to raising the funds they need. Jumping on a social trend is an especially effective way of connecting. The aforementioned #nomakeupselfie campaign wasn't actually started by a charity; various organisations in the sector merely identified a movement that was already underway and then harnessed it as a way to raise money.

As with so many things in the social space, it's people who hold the power in this case too: Macmillan claim that they only began talking about the Ice Bucket Challenge themselves after their fundraisers started doing it of their own accord. I've noticed over recent days that many of those posting videos are freestyling it by donating to another charity of their own choosing. The fact that people are free to do what they choose with the Ice Bucket Challenge is the precise reason that it's gotten so popular.

The same way that ALS can't force everyone who posts an Ice Bucket Challenge video to donate to their cause, they also can't prevent other charities and brands from using this powerful idea for their own gain. The reason that ALS no longer own the Ice Bucket Challenge concept (if they ever did) is because it now belongs to everyone. And, in the end, surely anything that spreads the positive message of giving in general is ultimately a good thing for all charities?

I'd say the more pressing moral issue at play here -- just as it was with #nomakeupselfie -- is the amount of people using the Ice Bucket Challenge as a vanity exercise and not donating to any charity at all.

Code in the news Jul 2014