Ice bucket good, neknomination bad? It’s all just self-promotion

Clare Balding and Frankie Dettori take the challenge. Anna Gowthorpe/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Now that every celebrity under the sun and every Facebook user has posted a video of themselves getting wet, it appears we have reached peak ice bucket. A trend that started as a drive to raise awareness for a good cause has become an attention seeking device. The ice bucket challenge is turning into neknomination.

The ice bucket challenge started as a way to raise awareness about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or motor neurone disease. A celebrity would pour a bucket of freezing water over their head and nominate three others to follow their lead. If they failed, they would have to donate to charity. Of course, many have done both.

But now that a young man has died in the UK after jumping into a disused quarry for his ice bucket challenge, parallels are being drawn between this and the last big trend of its kind – the neknomination.

Apparently originating in Australia, neknomination is essentially a social-media-fuelled drinking game where people are filmed “necking” an alcoholic drink and then doing weird and, on occasion, dangerous activities. They then nominate friends to do something similar or “better”, like jumping from a bridge, taking their clothes off in public or stuffing their faces with revolting combinations of food and drink.

Neknomination has become notorious primarily as a result of deaths that have been caused by the heavy drinking so often involved in the videos. Animal cruelty charges have also been brought against people who filmed themselves drinking goldfish as part of their dare.

As one neknominee noted in The Telegraph, games like these always follow a similar pattern; they begin innocently but escalate with people drinking more dangerous concoctions and more outrageous videos being uploaded until something bad happens.

Neknominations have been presented as a very bad idea indeed as a result, with the popular press criticising them as a sign of a culture of excess drinking, reflecting the moral panic that is often associated with the young engaging in what are deemed inappropriate activities. Ice bucket challenges, on the other hand, are being celebrated. The people involved are appearing in the pages of our newspapers every day, being described as both daring and generous.

But the pattern is similar. Like the neknomination, the ice bucket has become a vehicle for self-promotion. Z-list celebrities can get coverage in the same articles as Leonardo DiCaprio and Victoria Beckham just by completing a silly task. They gain extra currency by nominating a celebrity above their rank.

Of course there are obvious differences between the two. Neknominations are almost always fuelled by alcohol and crudely videoed and uploaded. Ice bucket challenges are carefully managed, appear on TV and in the press and are being done for a good cause.

But what they both have in common is exposure. As the neknomination trend spread earlier this year, it became clear that you could attract considerable attention to yourself if you did something wild enough in your video. This time it is celebrities who are following the crowd and they certainly seem to be getting a lot of coverage from the ice bucket challenge as a result.

Lots of money has been raised for ALS charity work but the story has really become who the next celebrity will be to take up the challenge. Donations have taken a back seat.

And just as ice bucket challenges are not purely good, not are neknominations all bad. Some challenges have included giving food to the homeless and donating blood but there has been little coverage of these challenges – possibly because they are neither celebrity-endorsed nor dangerous.

Given time, as with so many crazes, the ice bucket will fade away. When it does, will celebrities be as willing to donate to charity without the exposure such ephemeral fashions engender? What neknomination and the ice bucket challenge have in common is the overriding need for recognition. Every-day bucket slingers crave their 15 minutes of Facebook fame and celebrities need to maintain their status in the public eye. But we’re all reaching saturation point with this exercise in self-promotion. At least you get a bit of variety with neknominations.