THREE heads bowed over a mobile phone and chattering excitedly told me my sons had got what they wanted: to be nominated for the craze that’s sweeping the globe.
Jose Mourinho has done it; Victoria Beckham has done it; Justin Bieber has done it twice (because he forgot to take his shirt off to reveal his rippling torso the first time) and, by the time I have finished writing this piece, I guess my boys will have done it too. They will have joined scores of their friends in having an ice cold bucket of water poured over their heads in aid of ALS (the American name for motor neurone disease).
Who knows where the idea sprang from – some say it started in North America, others in New Zealand – but since mid-July, when it was featured on the Today show, the challenge has become a worldwide phenomenon, embraced by everyone from supermarket shelf-stackers to Hollywood icons. Though it has raised $40 million (£25m) for ASL research in a matter of weeks, the principal appeal of this fad appears to be its childishness, the street cred gained from taking part and the moments of slapstick hilarity it has created.
There was George W Bush, writing a cheque for the charity while denouncing the stunt as “unpresidential” as his wife Laura snuck up behind him and gave him a “surprise” dousing. There was the sight of the famously frosty Anna Wintour having no fewer than seven buckets poured over her (an experience which wags suggested might have warmed her up). There was John Krasinski ambushing his wife Emily Blunt as she arrived home with the groceries. And there was the anonymous lad who gave Stan Laurel a run for his money when, raising the bucket to pour the water over his friend, he stumbled and tipped it over himself.
A second attractive aspect of the craze is the opportunity it affords those who take part to nominate two or three others. Those named have 24 hours to follow suit. Mischievous children have been nominating headteachers. Bush nominated Bill Clinton (having himself been nominated by golfer Rory McIlroy). And James McAvoy – the rascal that he is – nominated Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling just days before their second referendum debate. Quick off the mark, Darling got there first, undergoing a mass drenching in Glasgow on Friday, but the SNP leader has also pledged to step up to the bucket.
Only a handful of celebrities have declined: Barack Obama wrote a cheque instead (without Michelle sneaking up behind him), Vladimir Putin failed to respond (despite his professed love of cold baths), and Pamela Anderson, who opposes animal experimentation, said she could not endorse a charity which “drilled holes in the heads of mice”.
But neither her rejection nor the death in a diving accident of Corey Griffin, who helped popularise the craze, stopped other celebrities from jumping on the ice bucket juggernaut, the biggest craze since… er, the last one.
Let’s face it, a few weeks ago we were all obsessing about loom bands. Harry Styles and Kate Middleton were spotted wearing the children’s bracelets and jackets, dresses and handbags made entirely of elastic loops were plastered all over the internet. Before that it was #nomakeupselfies. And Movember. And Neknomination. And twerking. And planking.
All these crazes appear to play to peculiarly 21st century traits: a tendency towards infantalism, a post-Thatcher competitiveness and a large dollop of narcissism (all of them, apart from the loom bands, involve posting images of yourself online). But in reality crazes have been around since the first Stone Age man painted the first picture on a cave wall, and certainly throughout the 20th century.
We all remember from our childhoods how fads for Chinese ladders, or scraps or football cards or hula hoops spread inexplicably from playground to playground, from town to town. The internet may speed up the process. It may allow them to travel further. It may even decrease our attention span meaning each one lasts for a shorter period, but the ice bucket challenge is not so very different from “truth, dare, double dare”; Gangnam Style from the Mashed Potato; and Neknomination from drinking games such as Fuzzy Duck.
The success of loom bands may be unprecedented – at one point they took up all top 25 places in Amazon’s toy charts – but they’re just a twist on scoubidous, which were popular in France in the 1950s. The salt-and-ice craze – which involves covering the skin with salt then rubbing it with ice to cause severe burning – is very close to a 1980s school craze which involved scratching the skin until it became raw and infected. And Punch 4 Punch – a game which involves two people hitting each other, until one gives up and has to do a forfeit – is just a more violent twist on Mercy, Bloody Knuckles or Chinese burns.
Indeed one of the reasons crazes take off is that they allow us to reconnect with our childhood and experience the pleasure that comes with being part of a gang. According to psychologists their spread stems from a basic human need for alignment and social acceptance. “The motives go back to early Homo sapiens and they involve the desire for relatedness and community,” says Paddy O’Donnell, professor of psychology at Glasgow University.
“There is a natural tendency for us to copy what other people do – their actual physical movements. That is what people have done through history to communicate and to learn new skills such as stone carving or pottery firing.
“But people are also motivated by a desire for community – and one of the ways you can indicate group membership is through co-ordinated action. The need for social acceptance is very high in adolescence so you wear the same clothes, you adopt the same walk and you do things together.”
Far from being a means of advancing human knowledge, most modern crazes revolve around the trivial. They still involve a degree of conformity, but they tend to require each participant to bring something new to the table; for example, if one person douses themselves with icy water, then the next has to add an interesting or humorous twist. Which should make Salmond’s drenching interesting.
A successful craze will require those involved to make an effort. It may force them to learn a new skill, subject themselves to pain or discomfort, risk ridicule or demonstrate ingenuity.
Many crazes also involve a degree of risk. A few, like rooftopping, which involves taking photographs at the tops of skyscrapers, are only for the most committed of thrill-seekers. Others, such as planking, which involves lying down in an unusual or incongruous location, can be done by anyone, anywhere, but tend to become more risky as participants up the ante.
One of the world’s stranger crazes, planking was invented in 1997 by bored schoolboys Gary Clarkson and Christian Langdon, but spread a decade later when one of their friends created a Face-book page charting their adventures. For a while, planking was ubiquitous, with people posting images of themselves lying flat on photocopiers, fast-food counters, trees and underwater.
By 2009, however, it began to suffer a backlash. Seven doctors and nurses in the Great Western Hospital in Swindon were suspended for planking on duty, and as people began planking on roads, rooftops and the tops of moving cars, the injuries started stacking up. In 2011, Australian Acton Beale died while apparently trying to plank on the railings of a balcony on a block of flats in Brisbane. Neknomination and Punch 4 Punch have also been blamed for causing deaths, as has chicken, a game which has been played in various guises for generations.
A degree of social disapproval is a marker of success in even the most innocuous of crazes. Thus conkers have been banned as potentially dangerous, football cards for leading to playground bust-ups and Tamagotchis for distracting children from their school work. Loom bands have been attacked on several fronts: first they were said to be bad for the environment and a danger to household pets who were ingesting them, then to contain deadly toxins which cause cancer.
Likewise, the ice bucket challenge is beginning to attract criticism. Questions have been raised about the wisdom of chucking so much water around when much of the world – including California – is suffering from a drought. More problematically, though, there is a sense that the serious message – the drive to find a cure for motor neurone disease – has been lost as celebrities and non-celebrities alike fall over each other to get a piece of the action. Jackass star Steve-O suggested the amount of money raised was paltry given the number of wealthy people who had taken part and suggested participants were more interested in securing likes than improving lives.
This a problem with all fundraising stunts, particularly those which evolve spontaneously from internet rather than being orchestrated by the charities involved. A recent study by academics at the universities of Manchester and Sussex found celebrities were ineffective at raising awareness of causes and that they gained more from endorsing charities than the charities did.
“The public is much more likely to get involved if a celebrity is involved but it doesn’t actually step up how much the public engage with the issue” says Russell Hargreave of charity research specialists New Philanthropy Capital. “So you might well raise some serious cash, but if, as a campaigner, your aim is to raise awareness of a condition and how many people are affected that message is unlikely get through.”
This is likely to be particularly true of stunts, like the ice bucket challenge, where all the emphasis is on the participants and their reaction. Though the #nomakeupselfie, the craze which involved women posting pictures of themselves without make-up, raised £8m for Cancer Research, it was widely derided as narcissism disguised as altruism, particularly since many of those involved did not donate. The criticism is even more valid in this case, because there will be people in the UK who do not know that ALS is motor neurone disease and many of those taking part have posted their clip without reference to the cause.
Some of those involved have tried to address this. Two sufferers, Anthony Carbajal and Lorri Knox Carey, have posted touching videos talking about the impact of the disease on their lives. Alistair Darling tweeted a link to the website of Gordon Aikman, the director of research for Better Together who has been raising funds for motor neurone disease since being diagnosed with the condition earlier this year and writing about it very movingly in Scotland on Sunday. Charlie Sheen tackled criticism head-on by pouring a bucket of dollars, as opposed to water, over his head. Electronic Arts CEO Andrew Wilson took the challenge, donated $1,000 and promised the company would match every dollar donated by North American EA employees.
Sadly, just as celebrities are beginning to spread the word, it seems we may be approaching peak ice bucket. Although there are no obvious signs of a loss of momentum, well over a million people have taken part and it has dominated newspaper headlines for days. One of the hallmarks of crazes is that the minute everyone has heard of them they start to wane.
Who knows what the next craze will be. Perhaps it will involve a must-have toy, a dance, another charity challenge or a potentially dangerous stunt. It is almost impossible to predict what will or won’t go viral. What we can be sure of is that in some school playground or dark corner of the internet a quirky new trend is currently fermenting, ready to explode on an unsuspecting world as soon as the ice bucket epidemic runs its course. «