Across the world, millennials are pausing to ask, in the manner of J. Alfred Prufrock: “Do I dare to eat a Tide Pod?”
As any adult with a half-functioning brain will tell you, the answer is no. I guess I should put this at the top: Do not, under any circumstances, eat Tide Pods, the dissolving packets of detergent that make laundry slightly easier.
Why, then, are Tide Pods suddenly dominating the memescape? Why are teenagers on YouTube eating, or pretending to eat, or, uh, vaping Tide Pods? Why is it that on any social network worth that title — from Tumblr to YouTube to Facebook to even, yes, Twitter — people are joking (are they joking?) about eating Tide Pods?
This gets a little messy. By and large, the jokes about eating Tide Pods are just that: jokes. There are very few people “eating” Tide Pods; the people who are “eating” them are really just biting into them and spitting out the detergent. But, of course, when local-news anchors hear the phrase “eating Tide Pods,” it becomes fodder for nice parental-anxiety-inducing segments, and to young people that panic is incredibly funny (and search-term-friendly!), so then more people start “eating” laundry pods (or even just posting videos with those terms in the title). So idiocy begets idiocy in the worst possible “chicken and the egg” parable one could imagine.
But, again, mostly the Tide Pods thing is just a joke, that people are making with words and pictures.
People have been joking about eating laundry pods for years, as the crowdsourced database Know Your Meme recounts. Tide Pods were first introduced in 2012, as a convenient way to do laundry — just throw a squishy, dissolving packet of soap in with the load. But the same thing that made them seem cool — their bright colors and toylike shape — also made them seem like something to eat, especially for children. In 2013, Consumer Reports reported that some poison-control centers had reported thousands of cases of children under 5 eating Tide Pods. A satirical op-ed in the Onion headlined, “So Help Me God, I’m Going to Eat One of Those Multicolored Detergent Pods” appeared in 2015 (the satirical publication also announced a Sour Apple flavor last year).
That same year, Procter & Gamble began airing advisory commercials about product safety.
The core attraction of the early wave of Tide Pod memes seems to be the same thing that attracts us to many memes: its relatability. Image macros like “Socially Awkward Penguin,” which observed minor moments of personal gracelessness, were the first wave of memes to really reach an off-internet population for the same reason that Jerry Seinfeld was such a successful comedian: People like to realize that they are not alone in the world, and that their odd thoughts and private experiences are shared.
Tide Pods don’t take the form of an image macro — but it draws its power from the same place. “Boy, I’d really like to take a big honkin’ chomp out of one of those Tide Pods” isn’t the sort of thing people usually blurt out at the dinner table (or anywhere else for that matter). It’s highly specific, dangerous, and in a way, deviant. In other words, it’s perfect fodder for an online discussion. (This CollegeHumor video, from 2017, gets at the appeal.)
But the Tide Pods meme has expanded lately, hitting escape velocity over the last month or so and moving from the more obscure corners of the web into the lands where normies (and local-news anchors) tread. It’s also taken on a somewhat darker turn: A recent flash point is this tweet from last month.
It’s spiraled out from there, into a running joke about how funny it would be to eat something that would kill you.
The jokes about eating Tide Pods have also spawned a “Tide Pod Challenge” in which (a fairly small number of) people actually bite into these things on video, a rare instance of thousands of jokes spawning an online “challenge” (previously: cinnamon, ice bucket, mannequin) rather than the other way around. One answer to the question “Why is eating Tide Pods a joke?” is “because it drives engagement on YouTube.” Ah, youth! Never underestimate the power of social-platform metrics to drive adolescent meme consumption!
Truly, never underestimate the appeal of obscurity and adult incomprehensibility — Tide Pods are a global inside joke for fans of light trolling. And there is something generationally specific about Tide Pods, beyond the YouTube incentives and the generically youthful oddness. The uncharitable reading would be that the Tide Pod is an invention for age demographics so coddled that they can’t be bothered to measure out laundry detergent themselves. That makes the product a potent marker for a certain cultural stereotype — younger, pampered, more destabilized than they’ve ever been in their life.
More generously, though, we might imagine that the idea of eating Tide Pods has a certain resonance to a medicated, surveilled generation, coming of age among ceaseless internet-based moral panics (Jenkem, i-dosing, the knockout game) and amid a constant volume of hectoring advice from parents and teachers and therapists and advertisers — all while the world collapses around it. It makes sense that the rise of the culturewide idea of eating poisonous Tide Pods coincides with the end of an exhausting 2017, and the start of a 2018 that saw its first statewide ballistic-missile panic less than two weeks in. Why take your doctor-prescribed meds when you can take Procter & Gamble’s, administering to yourself the ultimate cure, death on your own terms?
Maybe more to the point, why let brands dictate the terms with which you engage with their products at all? A year and a half ago, meme culture began a months-long riff on Harambe, the gorilla killed at the Cincinnati Zoo after a child fell into his enclosure. The meme itself was something of a parody and referendum on online outrage culture, but it lasted in part because it was so difficult for corporate brands to co-opt and make uncool. (And maybe there was a third thing propelling the meme, which is that Western audiences found the name Harambe funny and fun to say, which I won’t unpack here.)
But making a meme uncool is essentially what Tide, bless its poor social-media manager, is trying to do. Last week, it put out a video in which New England Patriot Rob Gronkowski warns teens off of eating the detergent packets.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is also attempting the impossible balancing act of being a killjoy while also appearing “cool” and “with it.”
Tide Pods are, maybe, a step beyond the Harambe concept — not simply a meme that corporations can’t control, but a meme that itself controls a corporation. Instead of participating in the meme — thereby ruining it — Procter & Gamble is obligated to spend a great deal of money actively trying to shut the meme down. There is something thrilling, funny, and a bit perverse in forcing a company’s “I talk just like you, fellow teens” social-media account to request that you engage with their products less.
The life cycle of a meme is always a struggle over ownership. It’s silly to try to own an idea, or a joke, and to try to control how people tweak it and iterate on it. Tide Pods are the first step in a new age where — instead of resisting corporate meddling in the meme world — the established norms of social media are manipulated to force a company to participate in the culture in ways that run counter to its own interests.
So you can still “eat” Tide Pods, but, you know, don’t eat Tide Pods. Come on.