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How a Grassroots Cancer Research Campaign Almost Saved the Polar Bears

Last week, #nomakeupselfie was trending all across the UK. The campaign raised more than £8 million ($13 million) for cancer research and in the past week has been tweeted tens of thousands of times daily. You might think that the marketing department for Cancer Research UK would be popping champagne at their viral creation, but they had nothing to do with it. The movement was entirely organic, and they’re just able to appreciate the windfall.

Many bloggers believe that this campaign’s success stems from the British culture of self-deprecation paired with the rising fame of selfies. It gave the Brits an opportunity to be embarrassed and vain at the same time, all in the name of fighting cancer.

On top of Cancer Research UK, there are two other groups who saw surprising donations this week because of the #nomakeupselfie trend: UNICEF and the WWF. Wait, what do selfies sans-makeup have to do with saving the polar bears?

shutterstock_113256235When users texted a selfie to 70099 with the word BEAT, they would donate to cancer research; however, we’ve been conditioned to use the word DONATE because that’s the word traditionally used by the Red Cross and other organizations during a national disaster. When users texted DONATE to 70099, their donation went to UNICEF. These past few weeks, UNICEF has received more than £18,000 in text donations without lifting a marketing finger.

Meanwhile, other texters thought they were sending their selfies to BEAT but their phones auto-corrected the word to BEAR. Users would receive a text thanking them for their interest in adopting a polar bear.

The WWF asks users to confirm their donation, so no money was accidentally collected, and UNICEF plans to transfer the funds over to Cancer Research UK. It’s impossible to be mad at Cancer Research UK, considering they had nothing to do with the campaign, so all three groups are being good sports about the mix-up.

While UNICEF and the WWF don’t mind the extra publicity around their organizations (even if they don’t get to keep the donations) this isn’t the first time a viral campaign has brought unsuspecting victims into the spotlight.

The Rise to (Accidental) Fame

Last June, fast food chain Wendy’s created a contest to promote their flat bread sandwiches by asking fans to take pictures of their meals, tweet them to the corporate account, and use #twEATfor1K. This entered fans into the pool to win $1,000. The problem is that the fliers used proper grammar (@Wendy’s) while the corporate handle was @Wendys. The fan tweets were getting sent to @Wendy when the apostrophe cut off the name. Wendy Peters of Calgary was receiving thousands of sandwich pictures every day.

tweetfor1kWendy’s reached out to Peters and asked to use her Twitter account for the duration of the contest, which she obliged. Wendy’s corporate didn’t want her to be overwhelmed with tweets as long as the contest –and poorly printed fliers –was live. As an apology for the mix-up and as a thank-you for her compliance, Wendy Peters received a handful of coupons and gift cards to share with friends and family. Stay classy, Wendy’s.

… And Some Have Virality Thrust Upon Them

When Japanese kindergarten teacher Atsuko Sato snapped a picture of her Shiba Inu one day, she had no idea that the picture would become a meme. Now, Doge has become so popular that there’s a currency called Dogecoin that has sponsored a car at Talladega. (Speaking of accidental donations: Alex Green, founder of, accidentally donated 20m Dogecoin — $13,200 — instead of 2m to that cause.) Similarly, other memes like Annoying Facebook Girl and Scumbag Steve found themselves in the viral spotlight because someone found an image and added text around it.


Marketers try to go viral every day. It is the goal, the dream. But sometimes, virality gets thrust on you, whether you want it or not. Congrats on your unexpected victory, Cancer Research UK, and thanks for playing along to everyone else.

About the author

Amanda Dodge