A dangerous new trend called ‘Tide Pod Challenge’ is becoming popular on social media, but doctors say it could land them in the emergency room.
CINCINNATI — Despite unwanted viral publicity from Internet pranksters eating Tide Pods, Procter & Gamble continues to ramp up production of the wildly successful colorful detergent pouches.
Just before the New Year, a spate of teenage poisonings were reported in the U.S. as a result of an Internet-based dare encouraging youths to post video of themselves biting or eating Tide Pods. The stunt, dubbed “The Tide Pod Challenge,” has resulted in poison centers reporting 142 incidents in January.
Swallowing highly concentrated laundry detergent can cause seizures, pulmonary edema, respiratory arrest, coma and even death, health officials warn. So far, no one has died from the craze.
The controversy comes just after the Cincinnati-based consumer products giant rolled out Pods in Japan and China — P&G’s largest market outside the U.S.
Unit-dose laundry detergent has become a $2 billion a year business for the company — that’s 14% of P&G’s annual fabric care revenues and 3% of total sales for the whole company.
P&G (PG) has taken several steps to discourage the recklessness associated with their product, including a public service announcement and getting YouTube to remove videos with dangerous behavior.
But the incidents have some consumers wondering out loud whether the product should be banned — and some lawmakers have pondered taking further action. Last week, New York legislators proposed a bill to require child-proof packaging that P&G claims it has already addressed.
First introduced in 2012, Tide Pods have been a runaway hit product for P&G. The company has had unit-dose detergents since 2001, but Pods with three separate chambers in each capsule were the breakthrough. The triple-chamber product allowed P&G to distribute a detergent with more highly-concentrated detergents that wouldn’t interact until the capsules dissolved in the wash.
The current woes with Tide Pods are an eerie reminder of an early wave of poisonings.
When they were first introduced, Tide Pods led to several poisoning cases among little children who mistook the colorful packets for candy. That led to several repackaging and safety awareness efforts from 2013 to 2016.
In 2016, P&G put childproof zippers on Tide Pods sold by the bag. In 2015, the company added a bitter tasting exterior film to Pods to dissuade young children and Pods were made more durable to withstand squeezing by a youngster.
Other safeguards include warning labels and eliminating see-through packaging that showcased the bright Pods.
As poisoning concerns abated, P&G expanded. Over the last five years, P&G has goosed sales by gradually rolling out the upgraded product to Europe, Mexico and now Asia.
Even amid the bubbling controversy in January, P&G executives disclosed that Tide Pods were powering 90% of the laundry detergent sales growth. Worldwide, P&G sells four out of five dollars of all unit-dose laundry products.
“Before the Tide Pods launched, this segment (concentrated unit-dose detergent) made up 2% of the laundry category, it now represents over 15% of the laundry market,” chief financial officer Jon Moeller told Wall Street analysts on a conference call.
In January, P&G swatted down a fake social media post saying the company would ban Tide Pods that confused some consumers about the future of the product.
Meanwhile, legal and marketing experts say P&G is doing everything it can to shut down the “Tide Pod Challenge.”
P&G has reached out to social media platforms to take down videos or other content that dare or encourage teens or young adults eating or biting the colorful packets.
The company also has aired a public service announcement urging viewers not to try the stunt. CEO David Taylor even issued a letter to parents to warn brash youth away from harmful behavior.
“As a father, seeing recent examples of young people intentionally take part in self-harming challenges like ingesting large amounts of cinnamon or the so-called ‘Tide Pods Challenge’ is extremely concerning,” Taylor wrote. “Ensuring the safety of the people who use our products is fundamental to everything we do at P&G…
“Let’s all take a moment to talk with the young people in our lives and let them know that their life and health matter more than clicks, views and likes. Please help them understand that this is no laughing matter.”
Michael McCarthy, chair of the marketing department at Miami University, said this fad disproves the notion of “Any publicity is good publicity.”
“They didn’t want people to do this and they didn’t need any more publicity — but now they’re doing all they can (to discourage the challenge),” McCarthy said.
McCarthy doubted the public would turn against P&G or their Tide Pods. He said the best case scenario for P&G is all the attention on the dangerous behavior will prompt daredevils to move onto the next thing.
“Hopefully, it will jump the shark faster,” McCarthy said.
Follow Alexander Coolidge on Twitter: @alexcoolidge
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