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How Pedialyte got Pedialit

Inside Pedialyte’s journey from toddler flu remedy to hangover fix.

One of the sweeter and more demented rap hooks in history goes, “Baby, I’m important like in Pedialyte.” It’s from Young Thug’s “Calling Your Name,” released in September 2015; the lyric, as helpfully unpacked by Genius user chillHill, means something along the lines of “he is a necessity to his girl (baby) like Pedialyte is to a dehydrated baby.”

Pedialyte is an oral electrolyte solution manufactured by the Columbus, Ohio-based medical company Abbott Labs. It’s based on rehydration therapies invented by the World Health Organization in the 1940s and was initially designed as an affordable means of treating dehydration caused by acute gastroenteritis, a common inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract caused by any number of viruses, fungi, and bacteria.

Acute gastroenteritis is still a worldwide epidemic, with a reported 2 billion cases in 2015; in many countries in western Africa and Southeast Asia where it remains a major problem, Pedialyte is classified as a drug. In the US, Pedialyte has been sold over the counter in pharmacies since the 1960s, primarily marketed as a way to rehydrate children age 1 and older following a bout with the stomach flu or a long day at the beach.

Four months before Young Thug’s beautiful contribution to the canon of lightly infantilizing wordplay, that changed. Why and how that change happened tells us less about the science of hydration than it does about one of the newer and more confusing facts of our existence: Every single one of us is now a social media “influencer.”

In May 2015, Pedialyte announced that it would target the hangover market — or rather, a subset of the adult market made up of people who engage in what the brand refers to as “occasional alcohol consumption.” The market was already there — Abbott said adult sales of Pedialyte were up 57 percent since 2012, accounting for a full third of total sales; the company was just deciding to go after it officially.

Abbott’s senior brand manager Eric Ryan tells me the decision to woo adults was simple: “The beauty of the product is that the benefits haven’t changed — Pedialyte is still a medical-grade hydration solution backed by advanced science. We don’t endorse heavy drinking or claim to cure hangovers, but our users find confidence in having a trusted rehydration solution that works.”

People had been tweeting about using Pedialyte as a hangover remedy since at least 2009. (Although back then, you could also find lots of people talking about rehydrating kittens and puppies. It was a different time online.) Some of these people were famous, including Carson Daly, Diplo, and a slew of college football players.

A social media image Pedialyte used to promote its Powder Packs to festivalgoers.

Ryan says Abbott has never paid influencers at any level, neither celebrities nor athletes nor Instagram queenpins. They just pick up the stuff of their own accord. (In 2014, for the recurring Us Weekly feature “25 Things You Don’t Know About Me” — a daring glimpse into the banality of famous people’s lives — Pharrell Williams wrote, “I drink Pedialyte almost every day.” He did not say why.)

“We knew there was online and social buzz about adults using Pedialyte,” Ryan says. “Because of the high levels of advocacy for our product, we’ve found that our everyday consumers are our biggest influencers. If you take a quick look at celebrity buzz about Pedialyte, you’ll see why we haven’t pursued any formal partnerships to date — Pedialyte is a product people like to talk about, from elite athletes to Oscar nominees to runway models to rap artists. You name it, we’ve felt the love.” The love, sure, but also free marketing everywhere.

Pedialyte’s brand pivot was written up by just about every business publication you can name. The rest of media soon followed suit.

“Everyone is Drinking Pedialyte to Cure Their Hangovers,” Cosmo declared. “Does Pedialyte Cure Hangovers?” asked the Atlantic. Ever the trend-setter, the New York Times published “Letter of Recommendation: Pedialyte” two years later.

Shortly following the 2015 announcement, Abbott sent a #PowderPackedSummer team to 144 music festivals and sporting events throughout the US to distribute a new powdered product convenient for travel and outdoor drinking. In tandem, Pedialyte paid for six branded articles on BuzzFeed with titles like “11 GIFs That Describe How You Feel After the Office Christmas Party” and “11 Dogs Who Are Thirstier Than You”; the latter’s introduction read, “You think you’re thirsty? These dogs know all about it. Next time you need to rehydrate, be sure to look to the lyte – Pedialyte!”

Members of the Pedialyte street team at Lollapalooza.

Pedialyte’s in-house research scientist Jennifer Williams does not, for the record, recommend the product as a “hangover cure.” She’s been at Abbott for 25 years and has worked on Pedialyte for the past 10.

“We know that there is no cure for a hangover,” Williams says. “You can’t go to a store and buy a cure for a hangover. We know that alcohol dehydrates, and we know that our product rehydrates.”

A hangover is a symphony of unpleasant symptoms associated with the influx of toxic compounds that comes with drinking alcohol. The accumulated compounds cause inflammation, mess with your immune system and hormone balance, and upset your body in all kinds of other ways that aren’t even fully understood; scientists have spent years looking for a surefire salve for the common hangover, and they haven’t found one.

While Pedialyte won’t necessarily alleviate a hungover person’s nausea, headache, or dizziness, it can counteract the dehydration caused by drinking. Here’s how it works: Pedialyte contains sugar, salt, potassium, and water. The water obviously rehydrates you, while the sugar helps pull the salt and potassium into your body to replenish electrolytes that have been lost due to dehydration. That’s it.

Williams tries to convince me that if you’re really dehydrated, “water isn’t going to do it for you,” and that the amount of sugar in Gatorade and Powerade throws off the chemical balance and negates the benefits of the electrolytes. “It actually makes the problem worse. It can actually dehydrate you or cause a gastrointestinal disturbance. I can say ‘diarrhea,’ if you want.”

Williams refers to Abbott as a scientifically “conservative” company, careful to never make too specific a reference to a hangover. She has to review every social media post for scientific accuracy, and she notes that the brand’s pivot to the adult market came with no adjustments to Pedialyte’s packaging or presentation. The main product changes since then have been the addition of two flavors — Strawberry Freeze and Berry Frost, obvious rip-offs of Gatorade flavor names — and a new “Pedialyte AdvancedCare Plus,” which has nutrition facts nearly identical to the original Pedialyte but purports to have “even more electrolytes.”

Pedialyte’s initial summer marketing push coincided with the second season of HBO’s True Detective, which drove 3 million prestige cable viewers to the brink of madness. In the fourth episode, Colin Farrell’s racist, corrupt-cop character Ray takes Taylor Kitsch’s closeted, war-criminal character Paul around in a truck, peer pressuring him to drink whiskey. “I just don’t know how to be out in the world, man,” Paul says (because this was a serious show concerned with the nuances of evil). To that, Ray says, “Hey, look out that window. Look at me. Nobody does. Hit that again. We’ll get you some Pedialyte.”

Abbott says the mention was “not coordinated”; I asked writer Nic Pizzolatto’s publicist and HBO — no comment. There’s no way to prove that this was product placement. But you do the math: there are few combinations more logical and lyrical than a TV show about sex parties and a guy who was found sizzled to death in a vat of acid, and an Ohio-based medical supply company.

That summer, Pedialyte also launched a traditional ad campaign and an interactive Twitter campaign called #SeeTheLyte. Two of the copywriters who worked on the campaign said they were bound by nondisclosure agreements and could not talk about it. Abbott’s PR director Molly Sustar referred to the details of #SeeTheLyte as a “trade secret” and declined to discuss it. Yet to many of the people it sought to target — cool, young millennials — the #SeeTheLyte campaign may have appeared morbidly embarrassing. It could even be argued that Pedialyte’s appeal to the adult market survived a coordinated sabotage from within house.

Along with stock photos of Pedialyte packets peeking out of wallets and being passed off as discreetly as a dime bag, color-blocked illustrations of bearded hipsters and agave plants, Pedialyte started tweeting things like, “We forgot our tutus, but had an amazing time at Electric Daisy Carnival Las Vegas!” and, “T.G.I. Finally!” You know — things normal young people say, right before they get lit.

And yet, this coordinated attack — an embarrassing Twitter campaign, a festival ground team, a new flavor (strawberry lemonade!) — all seemed to work. When the next summer rolled around, rapper Vic Mensa was promoting his new EP with a guest spot on Sway Calloway’s radio show. He completed his freestyle challenge with a verse that went, in part, “Drank too much Ciroc, I need some Pedialyte.”

In February 2017, Pedialyte joined Instagram and started laying the groundwork for a program called #TeamPedialyte. Pedialyte’s social media team started commenting on every single post that mentioned the brand, most commonly with, “You made our day!” and, “Stay hydrated,” paired with a sunglasses emoji. Then they started hopping into DMs, writing, “You’re a big fan of ours, it’s no secret. Well, we noticed and were wondering if you’d consider joining #TeamPedialyte? And we aren’t just asking anybody. … Only real-deals like yourself.”

They asked for addresses and T-shirt sizes and sent out a St. Patrick’s Day care package in late February, then a summer survival kit in July. The mailings look to have been designed by someone whose only exposure to EDM culture was that Zac Efron movie, packed with items like a Bluetooth speaker-equipped water bottle, beer koozies with neon lettering (“Lit today, Lyte tomorrow”), and fingerless gloves with “High five to rehydration” printed below a green Pedialyte logo.

The people who received these kits posted about them voluntarily, typically using the recommended hashtags and sharing an Amazon discount code. Almost none of these fans have more than 800 followers, and most have between 200 and 300. They’re not influencers, except in their very immediate social circles. They’re young professionals and cross-country runners and fratty Midwestern coeds who get dehydrated and swear by this Pedialyte trick they heard about. The largest #TeamPedialyte-posting account I could find belongs to a pair of Bengal cats that live in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. They have 941 followers, and they are very cute.

Mae Karwowski, a co-founder of the New York influencer agency and tech company Obviously, explains the tactic: “This is the new evolution of influencer marketing. It doesn’t really matter the size of your following; it’s that you’re excited and want to post about the brand. The authenticity is really there. It’s just people who are really excited about Pedialyte, not like, ‘Your manager arranged this thing where you post five posts and five stories.’”

Karwowski compared Pedialyte’s strategy to that of the blog-first makeup company Glossier and the Kardashian-knighted clothing company Revolve, calling them three of the first to realize the benefit of spending money on a “really organic brand ambassador community where brands are choosing people based on how excited they are to talk about the brand as opposed to how many followers they have.”

Raj Rawal joined #TeamPedialyte after posting a photo of himself with arms full of the product at a CVS near Coachella, which resulted in a surprising DM and a gift box. The 28-year-old digital producer from Los Angeles has since posted about the brand a handful of times in his Stories and twice in the grid. He tells me he jokingly adds “#ad” to his Pedialyte posts even though the company consistently reiterates in his comments that he’s a “fan” and not a paid partner.

“So many people hit me up and were like, ‘How do I become a Pedialyte influencer?’” he tells me, laughing. He was happy to post about the product in exchange for free stuff — “Free stuff is rad, obviously. Who doesn’t like free?” — and he was also happy to tell me that Pedialyte is a “fascinating elixir” that you can chug after a night of heavy drinking so you wake up without a hangover and “still a little bit drunk.”

Taylor Williams, a 24-year-old #TeamPedialyte member from Chicago, expresses feelings similar to Raj’s (“My love for Pedialyte now is more for their whole brand — they’ve realized who’s drinking it and they’ve become fully engaged with us on a personal level”), as does Arizona State undergrad Bryce Schmitgal, who brings Pedialyte to music festivals when he plans to drink all night, passing out packets of powder at the Lost Lake Festival in Phoenix in 2016.

Schmitgal was hired by a third party, the event-staffing agency Victory Marketing, but was more than eager to instruct his fellow festival-goers that “Pedialyte is not just for babies and can help hydrate more than any other sports drink like Gatorade or Powerade,” he says.

“What I love about Pedialyte is that it really works,” says Alyssa Feitsam, a 25-year-old fan from St. Louis. “No gimmicks.”

To understand the cult of Pedialyte, I would need to drink it. (I’ve always been a Gatorade girl, no offense. You can get an eight-pack of Gatorade for $5!) One morning, on the way to the beach, I stopped at Walgreens and bought a bottle of mixed-fruit Pedialyte, a box of Pedialyte powder packets, and a box of Pedialyte freezer pops. This is $24 worth of Pedialyte.

Pedialyte tastes like Kool-Aid, if Kool-Aid also had an underlying kick of dentist’s office fluoride rinse. Pedialyte freezer pops are tolerable, but their packaging suggests that between 16 and 32 pops may be needed to fully rehydrate a dehydrated person. A recommended serving of the original bottled version is a full liter — two if you really intend to feel better. Travel-size packets have to be mixed with exactly 8 ounces of water or the chemical balance will be off, according to Abbott’s scientist. And in any case, Pedialyte is sold only in pharmacies, coming in cumbersome rectangular bottles that have child-proof twist-off caps and a thick foil seal.

The packaging still says, “Use under supervision of a medical professional,” which, frankly, is too authoritarian for me.

My best guess is that this medical appearance is part of the draw — a way to say that your hangover is serious because your partying was serious. Appropriating a medical substance also makes a vague suggestion that you’re doing something illicit. It’s leagues away from bringing cough syrup to the party, but aesthetically, is it that far from bringing cough syrup to the party?

But the refrain I heard from every #TeamPedialyte member I asked — including former All That star Lisa Foiles, just another unpaid fan who took it upon herself to make an elaborate Pedialyte unboxing video — was that they love it because it works. It makes them feel better, fast, as the tagline goes.

Actually, according to Rawal, it prevents him and his friends from feeling bad at all. “What we actually do is basically detox to retox,” he explained. “So I drink vodka with Pedialyte as the mixer. Miley Cyrus by day, Hannah Montana by night — best of both worlds.”

This idea, too, has been co-opted by corporate America. “I started testing Pedialyte in some cocktails in October 2017,” says Mike Perro, the director of operations for PJW Restaurant Group, which owns the Pour House, a pub in Exton, Pennsylvania. “The idea was meant to be a tongue-in-cheek way to help brunch patrons who may have drunk a bit too much the night before with a twist on the ‘hair of the dog’ theory.”

Mike Perro’s Pedialyte cocktails.
PJW Restaurant Group

The restaurant added brunch to its offerings early this year, and with it, Perro’s Pedialyte cocktails, available only from 11 am to 2 pm on Saturdays and Sundays. You can now also buy them at two other Pour House locations — in North Wales, Pennsylvania, and Westmont, New Jersey. Listed in a section of the menu titled “Recovery,” there is a Weekend Krush (orange vodka, orange Pedialyte, orange juice), a Summer Krush (strawberry vodka, strawberry Pedialyte, lemonade), and a Tropical Krush (mango vodka, orange Pedialyte, peach nectar).

“I would imagine college kids are doing that,” Williams, the Pedialyte research scientist, tells me. “I have no idea what would happen if you mixed it with alcohol. You maybe be undoing all effort there; I can’t imagine it working well.”

Today, Abbott says, adults make up “at least half” of all Pedialyte sales. They really did it! Congratulations to central Ohio.

They have “done it” in such a way that Gustave Karagroziz, a 27-year-old obstacle racer from Long Island, mailed the company a handwritten letter asking to be added to #TeamPedialyte.

He was told there were no more available spots, which infuriated him to the point of messaging me screenshots and screen recordings of more than a dozen of his Instagram posts about Pedialyte. “I’ll stop there, just know this isn’t even one-fourth of the pictures I have,” he said. He just wants an opportunity to represent a brand that “has done wonders” for him.

Did I set out to write this as an inspiring tale of a company succeeding based on the merit of its product and its goodwill toward its customers? No, I don’t care about companies succeeding. But having written that story anyway, I’m happy enough to recommend that you spend your money on products that have terrible branding, an embarrassing social-media presence, and solid science behind them.

Pedialyte is the real deal, which is probably why it’s disgusting. It’s the anti-Goop — not “wellness” but health. It’s the anti-Gatorade, which is basically salty sugar water that made a bunch of football players richer than God. We are so used to being suspicious, it’s easy to forget that some things still have utility genuine enough to withstand even the thirstiest attempts to mask it with neon lights and tweets about wingmen.

The recently Bieber-affianced model Hailey Baldwin didn’t get paid to post a photo when she knocked back a 2-liter bottle of Pedialyte at the entrance to Coachella this April, but it happened. And by all accounts, she had a lovely, well-hydrated weekend.

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