Ice Buckets and the Value of Marketing For Effective Altruists

The ice bucket has recently generated a lot of interest in charitable giving and attracted millions of dollars for the ALS association. As Will MacAskill points out, it may have reduced funding to some other organisations. Will criticised the Ice Bucket Challenge for using a viral campaign to attract funds without causing a change in people’s ongoing altruistic behaviour and identity. He also criticises it for being donor-focused. He also says that it promotes a charity that is not among the most effective. However, it’s far from clear that removing viral campaigns fixes this problem.

Firstly, it’s not clear that the existence of marketing disadvantages good charities. Does GiveWell receive more donations in a world where neither GiveWell nor other charities have any advertisements. Sure, most charities include hardly any evidence of effectiveness in their advertisements. It’s a seductive idea that if the emotional advertisements went away, then we would default to using our heads to figure out which charity has the largest impact. But I don’t see why this is more plausible than other alternatives, like that people would default to giving to local charities, or their church, or not giving anything at all.

Secondly, viral marketing in particular ought to advantage some of the more effective charities. Viral marketing transgresses international borders. It is cheap, unlike televised campaigns, and requires ingenuity rather than polish. Many charities that are promoted by effective altruists are small, agile startup-like charities. Take GiveWell, AMF and SCI for a few of examples. If viral marketing is more prevalent, and more effective, this should also advantage some charities with significant creative brainpower but minimal advertising budgets, if they can swallow their pride and learn to make better shareable online materials.

Thirdly, it’s not clear that the ice bucket challenge is failing to change people altruistic behaviour and identity. Participation in a ceremonial sacrifice can signal your commitment to a cause. Think about why you are willing to donate to somebody if they complete a fun run, or shave their head, or live below the line. Their public sacrifice indicates that they care about this cause, which makes you more likely to care about it. This makes you more willing to support it as well. However, by paying a public and vivid price (signalling) in order to support a cause, they also change their own self-perception. If this is true, then participation in ceremonial sacrifices could be a particularly effective way to change altruistic behaviour and identity.

Granted, we charities to compete by pouring more and more resources into more advanced marketing campaigns. However, it’s not clear that this is what is occurring, nor that we can do anything much about it if that is occurring. Effective altruists can oppose individual viral campaigns, but it is unclear whether this will have any impact on the marketing strategies used by other companies in the future. On the other hand, this kind of critical discourse could have a large impact on the status of effective altruism. It might promote awareness of the idea of using evidence in altruism. However, Will received lots of heated comments for promoting a critical effective altruist viewpoint. So, alternatively, the resultant controversy might lower the public standing of effective altruism. At any rate, there is a big conversation to be had about the marketing issues involved, supporting my overall point that marketing is something that effective altruists need to engage with, rather than run away from.

So when we complain about the ice bucket challenge, are we really saying that charities should stop advertising? Not really. Neither are we saying that viral advertising should stop. Our impact on any greater trend in advertising behaviour may be minimal, whereas the impact of this discussion on our own public relations may be large. However, there may be good ways to use viral campaigns for good – to help people to become the sort of person who cares about the scope of an intervention.

For an easy example, one could take on a scope-adjusted ice bucket challenge. If Malaria nets are more cost-effective than ALS drugs by five-hundred times, then effective altruists ought to be five hundred times more committed to them. That is, they ought to be willing to suffer five hundred ice-buckets. Hopefully not all at once, for risk of hypothermia! Or, alternatively, as a friend of mine suggests, perhaps the spirit of effective altruism is to just suffer a small fraction – one 500th of an ice bucket. So, for a given level of impact, you only have to give away a small fraction. These are just the obvious choices. So once we’ve tried out the scope-adjusted ice buckets, we ought to be able to find far more ways to tie together an effectiveness mindset with a small and viral costly signal.