Does the Ice Bucket Challenge Translate?

The Ice Bucket Challenge Comes to Kpop

The Ice Bucket Challenge hit Kpop like a storm this past week, with Korean celebrities getting involved left and right. At the time of writing, over 150 Kpop stars have completed the challenge, and the number is growing every day. There’s no question that the Ice Bucket Challenge has been an enormous fundraising success. The ALSA has raised $80 million since the challenge began on July 29, compared to just $2.5 million in the same time period last year, a 3100% increase. But with so much activism and support for ALS, has the message really translated? Is Kpop now a major player in internet activism?

Raising Awareness via Virality

At surface level, the Ice Bucket Challenge does not raise awareness. It’s not designed to.

Ice Bucket Challenge - Zico

After spending an inordinate amount of time watching Kpop celebrities douse themselves in cold water, it’s unclear what we can (or should) take away. Mentions of ALS are typically brief, perfunctory even. Many do not mention it at all. I have yet to see the video that states that ALS stands for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. Or the video describing ALS is a progressive neurogenerative disease affecting about 4 to 8 per 100,000 individuals worldwide. After watching or idols complete the challenge, how many of us understand the true terror of ALS, a disease with a depressingly high mortality rate and no cure that destroys the body while leaving the mind intact?

Ice Bucket Challenge - Suzy

Is this lack of information in any way a reflection of Kpop? Has something not properly translated? Not at all. The Ice Bucket Challenge is an ingenious bit of viral marketing that, so far, has behaved exactly as intended. It has spread like wildfire to all corners of the internet. And no, it’s not technically designed as a campaign to raise awareness. It’s designed to go viral. And virality ensures the spread of information better than any intentional campaign ever could. The golden rule in marketing is that it takes three impressions (views) before someone is ready to buy a product. When the Ice Bucket Challenge takes over your news feed, eventually you’re going to look up what it means.

So, no, the Ice Bucket Challenge does not raise awareness in the typical sense. It does so through social marketing, through internet activism, the latest buzzword on the interwebs. Internet activism is using social media to spread information and campaign for real-life activism.

Ice Bucket Challenge - Taecyeon

The Golden Age of Internet Activism

Kpop is uniquely positioned to make a big impact in internet activism. That’s because the perfect system is already in place. The compactness of Kpop (in terms of the number of idols) is a benefit here, especially for a campaign that requires idols to “challenge” one another. Within a matter of days, the majority of Kpop had been inundated, and fans could not escape the sheer number of these videos. It’s impossible to overstate just how fast the Ice Bucket Challenge spread, and was adopted, by Kpop idols, with fans quick to follow. Built on virality, internet activism is designed to spread quickly, snowballing into a large scale movement with minimal effort.

Ice Bucket Challenge - Sooyoung

It’s the “little effort” part that bugs some detractors. Because internet activism is “easy” and “safe,” often only requiring the push of a button to engage (Like! Share!), it is similarly easy to disengage. The fear of some is that internet activism creates a society whose compassion lasts only as long as the latest meme.

But really, what better kind of activism is available to our favorite Kpop stars? The cry against internet activism has been that no one truly “gets involved,” that hashtagging #IceBucketChallenge or #ALS does not amount to real support. That it is “outsourcing our compassion to professionals,” to organizations like the ALSA. But should we expect G-Dragon to give up music, don a lab coat, and spend the next year searching for a cure for ALS? Should Sistar forsake their new album and retool their group as a nonprofit for ALS research? Of course not.

Ice Bucket Challenge - Eunhyuk and Donghae

Kpop stars have two superpowers: money and fame. And the ice bucket challenge is a perfect use of both of these. Donations come in from big name celebrities, and at the same time, their name guarantees a certain amount of publicity that will reach the general public. Together, this spreads the message to an ever wider population. Virality and the snowball effect generates even more donations, which in turn promote research for a deadly and poorly understood disease. The support of Kpop stars has the chance to actually make a difference in finding a cure for ALS. We may be witnessing the dawning of a golden age of internet activism for Kpop. Expect more in the future.


Zander Stachniak is a southern-born, Chicago-based writer who first discovered Kpop through ShoutCast Radio. His biases are f(x) and Block B.

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