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Buckets of ice and 'trademark rights' for charity PR campaigns

Forget Scottish Independence, if there’s one subject that has been dominating conversation at this award-winning public relations and digital marketing agency it’s the countless gallons of freezing water being poured over people’s heads in the name of a good cause.
The Ice Bucket Challenge- initially designed to increase awareness and build donations for the American ALS Association, which works with motor neurone disease sufferers- has been a runaway success in terms of charity PR campaigns. Nevertheless, it has not been without controversy, as one Google search for the key phrase immediately reveals.
So far there have been several scare stories in the press about the down sides of dousing yourself in incredibly cold H2O. The death of a teenager who drowned in a quarry has been ‘linked’ to the phenomenon, meanwhile one Belgian man was left ‘critically ill’ in hospital after hiring a firefighting plane to drop 400 gallons on him, and a 10-month-old made headlines after the child’s granddad decided it was a good idea to unleash icy liquid temperatures on the poor unsuspecting tot. The list could go on much longer, too.
Needless to say, none of the above would have factored into the ALS Association’s initial plan. Nevertheless, it hasn’t stopped the charity raising $97million between July 29th and August 28th of this year, with everyone from the guy next door to Fugees rapper Pras getting in on the act (the latter, bizarrely, in the middle of North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang).
Here in Smoking Gun Towers, though, we’ve been more intrigued by another debate that has surfaced in the wake of the Ice Bucket Challenge. Although the ALS Association has received the vast majority of attention, UK cancer charity Macmillan has raised £3million from the same idea so far, with Water Aid also securing funds, including a staggering £47,000 in one day (albeit we’re slightly surprised they approve of people pouring the world’s most precious resource down the drain).
The powers that be at ALS weren’t best pleased about this, and soon a trademark application was filed in the U.S., which, if approved, would have prevented other organisations from raising money in this way. But, while this group was clearly the first to fully exploit said strange yet hugely popular way of boosting donations, can you really trademark such an initiative?
Well, according to the vast majority of the public, who responded with outrage, the answer seems to be ‘no, definitely not’. The origins of the ‘Bucket remain unclear, with some attributing its creation to the northern U.S., where people began engaging in The Cold Water Challenge over a year ago, with ‘contestants’  given the option of either donating money to cancer research or jumping into unforgivingly chilly waters. This isn’t verified, however it certainly points to the fact that ALS probably jumped on an idea that was already in existence.
So what does this mean for public relations professionals, the brands, firms and organisations they represent? As the age-old maxim goes, there are only seven original stories, meaning the rest are merely re-interpretations on those classic narrative blueprints, and while there are unarguably more ‘primary’ PR campaigns concepts, to some extent there will always be an element of borrowing in the industry; everyone looks around at what their peers are doing in order to reach a bespoke lightbulb moment.
The question being then, is it not the minor tweaks, comprehensive amendments, and hard work that goes into shaping a campaign to fit the exact requirements of a client that are the most valuable aspects of great public relations work, rather than having something completely new each and every time you’re looking to increase reach and secure great press coverage? And, in the Ice Bucket case, can we really criticise charities when they piggyback on a lucrative initiative such as this? Let us know your thoughts via the comments form below, because we’re keen as ever to hear them.
Image source – Wikipedia

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