Were it not for the industrialization of animal slaughter, the Civil War, and the Pennsylvania oil rush of 1859, the Tide Pod Challenge may never have existed.
This year, Tide found a new home on the internet as the latest gone-viral eating challenge. The winding route that the soap took to get there — from technological marvel to teenage meme — hides a larger story about how technology and branding has infiltrated, manipulated, and defined American culture.
Tide’s parent company, Procter & Gamble, started in two major industries: candles and soap. It was founded in 1837 in Cincinnati, a city butchering so many animals that it had earned the name “Porkopolis.” P&G turned the fatty byproducts of the meatpacking industry into candles and soap before shipping them out on the Ohio River.
P&G’s big break came when the country itself was breaking. Huge contracts with the Union army boosted company profits and spread the brand — with soldiers — nationwide.
But in 1859, P&G lost half its market practically overnight. The Seneca Oil Company struck oil in Pennsylvania, literally fueling the kerosene lamp’s increase in popularity and dramatically cutting the market for candles.
At this point, P&G was forced to transform from a brand established by reputation to a brand known for innovation. And innovate it did. First with Ivory soap, which buoyed the brand toward the end of the 19th century; then, in the 20th, with Tide.
As one of Tide’s researchers said, the synthetic detergent marked the point when P&G “would no longer be a soap company … it would become an industrial corporation with its future based on technology.”
And also a future based on culture. Tide funded some of the first radio plays, which would come to be known as soap operas. The bottles would spearhead major shifts in graphic design — they were the first major product to use Day-Glo packaging. And that bright orange would find itself on a flagship Amazon Dash button.
Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, had just been knighted by Queen Elizabeth II when Tide began research and development for a major new product. Eight years later, in 2012, Tide Pods hit the shelves.
By 2013, people were talking online about eating them.
The first known reference most commonly linked to is a post on the forums for The Straight Dope, a Chicago Reader question-and-answer column.
In fact, the dangerous phenomenon had started the year before, with dozens of child cases reported to the Consumer Product Safety Commission within months after release, according to the New York Daily News.
Even Senator Chuck Schumer was prompted to speak out about the problem: “I saw one on my staffer’s desk, and I wanted to eat it,” Schumer said at a September 2012 press conference.
The idea of the Tide Pod as a “forbidden snack” started to bounce around social media, but over a few years, the joke had separated from the real-world danger. The internet jokesters weren’t actually eating the lil’ things.
Then came 2018.
It only took within 15 days of 2018 alone for the first 39 reports of teenagers eating detergent pods to pop up, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. That’s equal to the number of reports in all of 2016, and almost three-quarters of 2017.
The Tide Pod Challenge was born. And the new year also brought the new meme to Claremont.
On Jan. 1, Cade Niles PO ’20 posted a photograph of a plate of Tide Pods garnished with mint in the 5C’s largest meme Facebook group, “Meme Queens of the 5Cs,” with the caption: “When you’re all outta meal swipes and flex is at $0.”
Niles’s post got exceptionally high engagement — 375 reactions and 19 comments in a group of about 4,000 people — indicating that a fair number of students were aware enough of the concept of eating Tide Pods to find Niles’s post funny and not just as a non-sequitur.
A few days later, a two-week streak of Tide-Pod content besieged the group. At least one Tide-Pods-related post was shared in the group nearly every day until Jan. 19, breaking only twice, on Jan. 12 and Jan. 16. At the peak on Jan. 17, five posts earned 389 reactions total.
This trend isn’t necessarily surprising. It roughly correlates to the global Google Trends search data for that same time period.
But it’s worth considering why the concept of eating them was itself so attractive to a small population of highly educated, young adults who in many other cases pride themselves on knowing things — like the fact that detergent isn’t food.
The power of a brand lies in expectation, and Tide is no exception. Alongside Kraft and Coca-Cola, Tide is one of the few brands people across the socioeconomic spectrum will continue to purchase regardless of the state of the economy, according to a 2009 study.
However, at the Claremont Colleges, we good liberal arts students are taught to never take expectations for granted. Brands, power, institutions — going along with their marketing or propaganda is at best ignorant and at worst complicit in systems of oppression and violence.
The Tide Pod Challenge, then, is a slippery middle ground. Tide says they’re inedible detergent packets. Theory says not to trust what Tide says. And everything animal inside us says they look delicious.
Really, the Tide Pod Challenge isn’t like any of the food challenges that came before it. Tide Pods aren’t food, so nothing has to be done to them to make them more “challenging.” The challenge isn’t about overcoming fear. It’s about giving in to desire.
To override the other knowledge we have about Pods — that they are, in fact, highly concentrated laundry detergent that can easily burn a human throat — is to embrace primal, childlike instinct. It is to have faith that the world is exactly as it seems, regardless of what Tide or our professors may tell us.
P&G is as much a part of modernity as any other military contractor. It’s no wonder that Tide worked its way into our homes, our identities, and eventually our bodies. But it’s scary to think this is how we are trying to make sense of the world: mouth-first.