What started out as an online joke is sending many communicators and social media platforms scrambling.
Tide Pods are the Internet’s breakout meme of early 2018. For those of you not in the know, the joke is that brightly colored laundry detergent pods look like delicious fruity candy so maybe we should, you know, eat them.
To be clear, you should not eat them.
Social media users on platforms such as Twitter and Reddit have been posting memes such as the following:
— Chitterbae Uh-woo-zh-a (@courtlanw) January 18, 2018
— Chef Pretty Boyardee Josh Elkin (@TheJoshElkin) January 16, 2018
The joke has extended to what’s called the #TidePodChallenge, in which several YouTube creators and other social media users (many of them teenagers) have taken to ingesting them to gain online views.
Television hosts Jimmy Kimmel and Trevor Noah have poked fun at the viral phenomenon:
— Jimmy Kimmel (@jimmykimmel) January 16, 2018
It’s time for the Tide Pod Challenge! pic.twitter.com/0jxXniPGSZ
— The Daily Show (@TheDailyShow) January 16, 2018
Not a real Tide Pod. Relax, Trevor’s mom.
— The Daily Show (@TheDailyShow) January 16, 2018
However, Tide and Proctor & Gamble aren’t laughing.
“We are deeply concerned about conversations related to intentional and improper use of liquid laundry pacs and have been working with leading social media networks to remove harmful content that is not consistent with their policies,” said a company representative.
Laundry detergent pods contain numerous chemicals that are potentially harmful if they are swallowed or otherwise ingested. Chief among these concerns is a chemical known as 1,4 Dioxane. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, exposure to this compound can cause eye and nose irritation, kidney problems and possible long-term lung damage. These effects are unlikely to occur if the product is used appropriately.
A Tide spokesman issued a statement to ABC News, which read, in part:
“Laundry pacs are made to clean clothes,” the statement said. “They should not be played with, whatever the circumstance, even if meant as a joke.”
Tide also partnered with New England Patriots’ tight end Rob Gronkowski to make a video discouraging people from entering the challenge:
What should Tide PODs be used for? DOING LAUNDRY. Nothing else.
— Tide (@tide) January 12, 2018
— Rob Gronkowski (@RobGronkowski) January 13, 2018
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Though many news outlets are reporting on the dangerous—and potentially lethal—consequences of the challenge, cases of ingestion are not as high as some might think.
The Washington Post reported:
In 2017, there were 12,299 calls to U.S. poison control centers due to exposure to laundry pods, according to AAPCC’s latest data. That number is actually down by about 14 percent since 2015, when there were over 14,000 calls. The organization didn’t start tracking pod poisoning separately until 2012, when Tide Pods first came out.
A couple things to keep in mind. First, while 12,000 poison control calls sounds like a lot, it’s well within the range of calls for a lot of other common household products. In 2016, for instance, there were over 20,000 calls related to hand sanitizers, 17,000 for toothpaste exposure, 16,000 for deodorants and 13,000 for mouthwash.
However, reported numbers for 2018 already show a rise in Tide-pod-poisoning cases.
Last year, U.S. poison control centers received reports of more than 10,500 children younger than 5 who were exposed to the capsules. The same year, nearly 220 teens were reportedly exposed, and about 25 percent of those cases were intentional, according to data from the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
So far in 2018, there have been 37 reported cases among teenagers – half of them intentional, according to the data.
The challenge’s virality has also caused health care organizations to issue warnings and public service announcements on Twitter:
Check out our press release regarding #laundry packets here: https://t.co/cR12CNOTne
Memes have referred to it as “forbidden fruit”. Remember Adam and Eve suffered serious consequences. You can too.
Call 1-800-222-1222 or text POISON to 797979 to save the number in your phone.
— AAPCC (@AAPCC) January 16, 2018
You may have in the news recently about the #TidePodChallenge. We urge people not to participate in this craze as it could cause serious harm https://t.co/U07pZ6wG1s watch this video for advice on what to do if someone has swallowed a poison. Please RT pic.twitter.com/0eSrNlnzbL
— St John Ambulance (@stjohnambulance) January 17, 2018
We haven’t gotten any calls about the #TidePodChallenge, but we can help you understand why teens are doing it and what might happen if they do.
Read about it on our blog ➡️ https://t.co/GEBxiDii6R pic.twitter.com/l8Ds4CLfw7
— Maryland Poison Center (@MDPoisonCtr) January 17, 2018
— US Consumer Product Safety Commission (@USCPSC) January 13, 2018
A few organizations, such as Hurtz Donut, have even used the challenge to grab online favor:
The challenge might soon lose its steam, however, as social platforms such as Facebook and YouTube have faced increased pressure from Proctor & Gamble to remove videos of people ingesting the laundry pods.
On Wednesday, TechCrunch reported:
So now YouTube appears to be trying to get ahead of any wider societal outcry over (yet more) algorithmically accelerated idiocy on its platform — i.e. when sane people realize kids have been filming themselves eating detergent just to try to go viral on YouTube — and is removing Tide Pod Challenge videos.
At least when they have been reported.
A YouTube spokesperson sent us the following statement on this: “YouTube’s Community Guidelines prohibit content that’s intended to encourage dangerous activities that have an inherent risk of physical harm. We work to quickly remove flagged videos that violate our policies.”
Videos that talk about the challenge are still allowed on social media sites, though, so communicators—especially health care PR pros—should still watch out for potential crises and opportunities to educate their audiences.
How would you push back against an internet meme gone toxic, Ragan/PR Daily readers?