Here’s a thing I learned while trying to think of how to begin this piece: Did you know that Aquafresh toothpaste is “the first striped toothpaste to launch within the oral hygiene market” when it was introduced in the 1970s? I did not. Maybe you’d know it if you engaged with the Aquafresh brand online, where the toothpaste is represented by a chiseled, smirking, Dreamworks-esque superhero known as Captain Aquafresh.
You might know Captain Aquafresh if you are one of the brand’s 5,700 or so followers on Twitter. Or you might know Captain Aquafresh if you were one of the brand’s 11,000 or so followers on Tumblr. Only one of those accounts, however, is an official representative of the Aquafresh brand.
On Monday, Tumblr users mourned the loss of aquafresh.tumblr.com, an unofficial account role-playing as the toothpaste brand. If you gave the account’s posts a passing glance, you might not see anything amiss, but if you concentrated for just a second or two longer, you might have noticed that something was up — for instance, the Aquafresh guy saying, “Fuck chocolate,” or advertising brick-flavored toothpaste. One infamous post featured a user named socialistmoira repeating the phrase “come and fuck me aquafresh guy” 28 times, until he responded, “i will most certainly kill you.”
The Aquafresh Tumblr was the brainchild of a user named Josh, who is currently a college student in New York. It was actually not his first attempt at posing as an internationally renowned brand; his first attempt was as kitkatofficial, which quickly got axed for impersonation, but not before amassing 15,000 followers, according to Josh’s memory. “It only lasted a month before it got taken down by the actual company,” he says, though you can still find posts complaining about its disappearance.
Brand impersonation is not particularly common on Tumblr; the accounts that do exist are usually parodies of cloying, aggressively youthful brand accounts, such as the one for the restaurant Denny’s.
“Denny’s” has basically become shorthand for try-hard corporate brands hoping to appeal to younger, weirder, more ironic parts of social media. The Aquafresh Tumblr account’s appeal was due in part to how it struck a tone that was only slightly more absurd than that of a desperate marketing agency.
Unlike Twitter or Instagram, where each user’s account only has one username, Tumblr lets users create multiple handles and blogs under a single account. “Usually I just play around with how many canon URLs I can grab,” Josh explained. That’s how he ended up with “aquafresh,” as opposed to something like “aquafreshofficial” or “realaquafresh.”
“I looked at the actual social-media marketing of Aquafresh. It was like it wanted to be made fun of,” he recalled. “It’s got a funny, obscure mascot, [and] pictures I could easily edit and pass as real ads.”
But on Monday, the bootleg Aquafresh Tumblr vanished. Josh received an email from Tumblr, informing him that, “We’ve terminated your Tumblr account. As per the policies you agreed to when creating a Tumblr account, we do not allow hate speech on Tumblr.”
Josh assumed that the hate speech Tumblr was referring to had appeared on the Aquafresh blog, and was not actually hate speech at all. “The only #InifnityStones you’ll need in the gauntlet of #SugarAcidProtection are Healthy Gums, Strong Teeth, and Fresh Breath. See you on the other side, Thanos!” the Tumblr account declared. Additional comments Captain Aquafresh appended to the post revealed spoilers for Avengers: Endgame, the closely guarded sequel that had only been out for a few days.
Fans of Aquafresh were immediately distraught. Using the available facts (and the general axiom that fandoms are insane and will go to any length to use the platform mechanisms at their disposal to punish anyone who steps out of line), it was assumed that spoiler-sensitive Marvel fans had invoked Tumblr’s policies to get Aquafresh permabanned.
That’s not really what happened. Later on Monday, Josh says, “I got another email clarifying that it [Aquafresh] was banned for impersonation, and these other URLs that I’d been holding on to had been banned for hate speech.” It turns out that in addition to the “aquafresh” username, Josh was also squatting on vacated usernames of Nazis that had formerly used Tumblr. The list includes usernames like “bayareanazi,” “fuhrerofgermany,” “lightning1488,” and “aryanprincessx3.”
Josh possessed these Nazi URLs as part of a community-led effort he started in mid-2016 known as Woody’s Roundup, or the Woody Collective. Basically, people would take the former usernames of hateful or problematic users (which were vacant either because the user had been pressured off the platform and deactivated their account voluntarily, or been penalized by Tumblr’s moderators) and change that username’s avatar to Woody from Toy Story and the associated blog’s title to “Howdy Partner.” Tumblr’s discourse is structured around reblogs — taking an existing post and adding to it — and so even if a bad user vanished, links to their work might still exist on the platform. Reasserting control over those links and leading them to a Woody blog was, in effect, a way of further diminishing those users’ lingering presence on the platform.
Eventually, the effort that had begun as a way of boxing out hate speech and borderline content on Tumblr became a meme in its own right and spiraled out of control. According to a Tumblr blog documenting the roundup, “many people did not read the rules or did not care, and would take any deactivated blog, or make custom URLs just to participate. Because of this the creator dismantled the woodysroundup.” The original members of Woody’s Roundup, subsequently switched from Woody avatars to SpongeBob SquarePants avatars. In 2017, Josh wrote on his main blog that “people are just taking any url they can find whether it be a bad person or not and i lost a whole bunch of mutuals over this shit.”
“They banned it for a reasonable choice,” Josh admitted. He didn’t sound at all distraught about Tumblr snapping Aquafresh out of existence just like Thanos snapped the Avengers away. “Everything’s good,” he said. “It’s just time for me to move on from Tumblr, and go on Twitter instead.” It makes sense: You’re far less likely to get swept up in a hate-speech purge on Twitter.