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Why people are (mostly) joking about eating Tide Pods

You shouldn’t try the Tide Pod Challenge, despite the memes. But it’s not weird to want to.

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Planet Earth is brimming with millions of different objects. But in this young year, there is perhaps no single item that has moved the dangerous desires of the human spirit as much as the brightly hued laundry detergent capsules known as Tide Pods.

One of several similar products on the market, Tide Pods are described by their maker as “small but powerful” alternatives to traditional laundry detergent that qualify as “more than just a liquid in a pouch.” These pods, Tide seems to promise, can revolutionize the way we wash life’s indignities out of our clothes.

Squishy little soap nuggets, I guess, are someone’s vision of the future of doing laundry. Each small pouch contains brightly colored liquid, and if you take a sniff, you’ll observe notes of a floral, chemical-scented bubble bath. Comparisons between the pods and pieces of candy abound.

But Tide Pods are also predictably poisonous to the human body — filled, as they are, with concentrated laundry detergent — and thus are not intended for consumption.

Tide’s reliance on the powers of poison to help us enhance the brightness of our clothing isn’t surprising or abnormal. It should go without saying that laundry soap isn’t meant to be eaten, including Tide Pods. Nonetheless, this hasn’t stopped many people from wanting to bite into one.

Indeed, the company’s website offers an extensive, multi-step guide to safeguarding children against the dangers of eating Tide Pods — according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, there were 10,500 cases involving kids under the age of 5 being exposed to laundry detergent packets in 2017. Further, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, two children and six adults died from consuming laundry pods between 2012, when they first hit the market, and 2017.

And it’s in the pods’ strange combination of convenience, a candy-like appearance, and potential to kill you that one of the first full-fledged internet memes of 2018 — and eventually, the legitimately dangerous Tide Pod Challenge — were born.

Admit it: don’t you kind of want to know what a Tide Pod tastes like?

Over the past few weeks, creative citizens across the internet have trolled the idea of eating Tide Pods into comedic existence. People have imagined Gordon Ramsay praising their deliciousness, invented apocalyptic fantasy scenarios where fights break out in supermarkets over the last bag of pods on the shelf, and even tried baking Tide Pods onto a frozen pizza:

The resulting meme — which effectively transforms Tide Pods into a sort of forbidden fruit — might seem silly, as it’s taken a simple joke to Gordon Ramsay-invoking extremes. At least a little bit, though, it’s an attempt to approach the odd, real desire that many people feel to eat these things. It also invites the question: Why would Tide design such a mundane but poisonous product to look like fruity candy?

The fascination with consuming Tide Pods and other similar “laundry packs” isn’t new.

This past July, the Onion published a story imagining that Tide had expanded its line of detergent pods to include a brand new sour apple flavor. Further back, in March, CollegeHumor published a video called “Don’t Eat the Laundry Pods,” about feeling an urge to eat them after someone tells you they’re off limits.

The basic idea couldn’t be simpler: Tide’s warning to not eat the pods is part of what makes us want to try them, or inspires us to imagine what they might taste like if we actually did.

A renewed sense of vigor online turned Tide Pods into one of the biggest memes of early 2018. Toward the end of December, someone tweeted at the fruit snack brand Gushers to request a safe, Tide Pod-like candy. A screencap of the tweet went viral, amassing more than 60,000 retweets (and Gushers apparently blocked the person in response):

Around the same time, the Reddit forum “Forbidden Snacks” was also ruminating on Tide Pods’ potential for culinary appeal. Tide Pod memes now dominate the forum’s list of most popular posts from the past month and include an “expanding brain” theory positing that Tide Pods could have been the forbidden fruit in the biblical story of Adam and Eve, a photo of white Tide Pods (which sort of look like ravioli) garnished with mint sprigs, and a “bae, come over” meme featuring The Simpsons’ Ralph Wiggum.

Twitter, Reddit, and other social media platforms and internet forums don’t exist in a vacuum. The Tide Pod jokes, like so many viral memes that preceded them (see also: the Babadook as an LGBTQ icon) ultimately spread and evolved as people continued to riff on them. They’ve now inspired enough mainstream fascination that people are publishing stunt videos to YouTube that document their misguided attempts to eat the pods, in what’s become known as “the Tide Pod Challenge.” And Time reports that 39 cases of teenagers “intentionally misusing” laundry pods were recorded in the first 15 days of 2018 alone, according to data from the American Association of Poison Control Centers; that’s compared to “39 cases of intentional misuse of these pods among teenagers in all of 2016, and 53 in 2017.”

As a result, both YouTube and Procter & Gamble have been forced to issue statements condemning the challenge, and according to Fast Company, YouTube is now going so far as to take down videos that feature it.

YouTube typically removes offending videos only after they’ve been flagged by users, and it’s been doing that in this case. People posting videos of themselves taking the challenge also risk having their YouTube channels terminated completely, thanks to YouTube’s strike system.

But such videos exhibit a deep misunderstanding the crux of the joke.

It’s the mystery of what a Tide Pod tastes like and its forbidden-because-it-could-kill-you status that makes the idea of eating Tide Pods so intriguing. No one wants to see you literally swallow and then vomit up a Tide Pod. The true appeal of the meme is that people want to see how delectable (and funny) they can make Tide Pods out to be.

The desire to taste Tide Pods, even as a joke, is the same one that makes people curious about drinking shampoo or eating bath bombs

One of the best explanations for why Tide Pods are alluring as a possible snack is that they combine several things humans enjoy in their food (there may even be a scientific link between our desire for “glossy” foods and our need for water): an outer “shell,” of sorts, that contains liquids like a fleshy piece of fruit; a floral, sweet aroma; a variety of bright hues (depending on which scent you buy) that appear to align with research concerning the relationship between appetite and color.

It’s not weird to think that Tide Pods may have been purposely designed to make humans want to eat them.

So why would Tide tempt us like this? And further, does the company’s warnings against eating Tide Pods just make people wonder even more about how they taste?

Since Tide introduced the pods in 2012, their outward appearance hasn’t seemed to change much. But both Tide and other companies that manufacture similar laundry detergent products have had to institute various deterrent and safety features to prevent people from consuming them.

In 2015, Tide’s parent company Procter & Gamble announced that it would add a “bitter taste” to its various brands’ detergent pods, specifically to prevent people from biting into them. Tide has also since added child-proof safety features to the pods’ packaging, in addition to issuing extensive warnings about locking up the pods if you share a house with or are caring for a person who has Alzheimer's disease.

Tide Pods’ food-like appeal — and the risks that come with it — put them in a wide-ranging category of dangerous household items that humans might feel compelled to eat but shouldn’t. For example, people have reported accidentally and purposely eating bath bombs — brightly colored, sweet-smelling spheres that you’re just supposed to drop in your tub.

According to the National Institutes of Health’s MedlinePlus website, non-accidental candle consumption (and subsequent poisoning) does occur. And after perusing the Forbidden Snacks pocket of Reddit, I found myself feeling curious about the flavor of a dishwasher cube.

In a 2014 study published in the journal PLOS One, researchers tried to find a link between food-imitating hygiene products (which present food-like qualities) and cases of people drinking shampoo. That study suggested that such products — like a watermelon shampoo, say — “fool” or “confuse” people’s minds in the name of marketing, which leads to consumer endangerment: “One of the goals of the metaphoric content of a product package is to suggest the experience of product consumption (hygiene) in light of another experience (food).”

That only sort of applies to Tide Pods; Tide isn’t putting them in packaging that might suggest that they’re food, or naming the pods’ various scents to sound especially edible — a Tide Pod with an “Ocean Mist” scent isn’t quite the same as a bath bomb with a blackberry scent or “strawberry smoothie” shampoo.

While the positive emotions one might feel in response to a Tide Pod’s smell or candy-like appearance could bring to mind previous positive experiences with certain foods, there’s no reason to believe that the meme will spur any kind of Tide Pod feeding frenzy.

That’s because the meme pokes fun at the idea consuming the pods, while (usually) stopping short of actually doing so. And according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, 2017 saw the lowest number of cases (10,570) of child exposure to laundry detergent pods since 2013, the year after such products debuted.

So it seems like humans largely understand the risk the pods present.

Long after the Tide Pods meme expires, they will still qualify as something of forbidden fruit. Our wondrous species has survived for ages alongside all kinds of stuff we’re not supposed to eat but can still imagine wanting to, from brightly colored household products to lotions that smell like cookies.

It just so happens that in the case of Tide Pods, thanks to the internet and all the weird humor that comes with it, we can see that an urge to eat a Tide Pod or a bath bomb might not be so odd after all. And we can also have a little fun making fun of ourselves in the process.

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