In January 2018, millions of cable TV viewers had their first encounter with the "Tide pod challenge"—an online and social media phenomenon in which someone with a camera (usually a teenager) films themselves biting into one of the laundry detergent pods.
"A government watchdog is expressing concern over the dangerous misuse of a laundry detergent," CBS News reported on 12 January. "In this latest social media fad, teenagers are putting detergent pods in their mouths in what's being called the 'Tide Pod Challenge.'"
"I can't even believe I have to say this right now," said Good Morning America's Diane Macedo. "They are brightly colored and they're very nicely wrapped, but these Tide pods are not candy or pizza toppings or breakfast cereal—they are not edible."
We've received several enquiries from readers wanting to know whether people really were putting laundry detergent in their mouths on camera. They are.
Amid a wave of news coverage in January 2018, safety watchdogs — in response to media enquiries — warned of the dangers associated with biting Tide pods.
Ann Marie Buerkle, Chairperson of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, told Good Morning America: "Teens trying to be funny are now putting themselves in danger by ingesting this poisonous substance."
A spokesperson for the American Association of Poison Control Centers told us that in the first 11 days of 2018, there had been 40 reported exposures to liquid laundry detergent pods by 13- to 19-year-olds. That figure represents 20 percent of the total number of similar incidents in all of 2017.
Furthermore, more than half the incidents so far this year have been deemed deliberate, as opposed to around a quarter in 2017, the spokesperson added. Even Tide itself had to intervene with a plea to not eat their detergent:
What should Tide PODs be used for? DOING LAUNDRY. Nothing else.
— Tide (@tide) January 12, 2018
Google (which owns YouTube) and Facebook both announced on 18 January that they are deleting Tide Pod Challenge videos from their platforms because they encourage dangerous activities.
We haven't been able to pinpoint the exact origins of the Tide pod challenge as a viral social media phenomenon, nor the allure of eating Tide pods as a meme.
Online pranksters and daredevils have been messing with laundry detergent for years. We don't want to encourage any dangerous activity, but some relevant keyword searches on YouTube and Facebook will yield videos dating back to 2011 which show people ingesting detergent of various kinds.
In 2012, the Proctor and Gamble-owned brand Tide introduced Tide pods — brightly-colored plastic pods that contain liquid laundry detergent. Following reports that young children had been mistaking them for candy and putting them in their mouths, the company added a safety latch to the pod containers.
The rising popularity of Tide pods brought more online stupidity, with the bursting texture of the pods an apparent focus of attention for daredevils. We found videos on YouTube and Facebook from as far back as 2012 and 2013 that involved squeezing the pods until they burst.
The earliest instance we found of the "Tide pod challenge" as a concept involving eating the detergent pods was in September 2012, and we found a YouTube video dating to June 2014 which showed a prankster biting into one.
Since 2014, every video-hosting social network has been replete with clip after clip of teenagers biting into Tide pods, only to discover that what they had been told ("Don't eat Tide pods") really was sage advice.
A 2015 article on the satirical web site The Onion (an op-ed by a young boy vowing to eat a detergent pod as soon as his parents drop their guard) reintroduced the concept into what you might call the internet's collective unconscious.
It's also possible that some pranksters were inspired to use the name "Tide pod challenge" on their pod-eating videos as a subversion of the "Tide pod challenge" series, an online video marketing campaign that Tide itself -- perhaps unaware of the other viral phenomenon of the same name -- launched in 2015.
A viral 2017 video by the College Humor web site captured the somewhat perverse allure that biting into Tide pods holds for some people. (It also accurately described the possible consequences, showing a young man being rushed to hospital afterwards.)
The concept of eating Tide pods, the bizarre temptation to eat them, warnings not to eat them, and the serious physical damage done by eating them, all spread more intensively as an online meme and cultural touchstone in the later months of 2017, as New York Magazine documented.
Worryingly, the actual practice of biting into Tide pods appears to have intensified as well, prompting the wave of warnings and news coverage in January 2018.
Call the national poison help hotline at 1-800-222-1222 or text POISON to 797979 to save the number in your phone.