Tide Pods: How a product became so appealing that it inadvertently turned into a public health risk

Saturday, July 16, 2022
A warning about new viral challenge involving Tide pods
A warning about new viral challenge involving Tide pods

In 2004, Procter & Gamble was looking for a hit.

It had been two decades since the consumer products conglomerate introduced Tide liquid detergent, revolutionizing the way people washed their clothes. Cheaper rivals and in-house store brands were chipping away at Tide's dominance.

P&G had also found that consumers were tired of lugging around bulky seven-pound Tide detergent bottles, measuring and pouring liquid detergent into a cup and then cleaning up the inevitable spills. Doing the laundry had become a dreaded chore.

The company needed to develop something so different that it would convince consumers to switch away from liquid detergent. It set about trying to develop a distinctive palm-size, liquid-filled detergent capsule that would catch shoppers' eyes on the shelf and make doing laundry a bit more exciting.

In 2012, after eight years, P&G finally introduced America to Tide Pods, a delectable blue, orange and white single packet of concentrated detergent.

Tide Pods was a breakthrough success. But P&G created a product so visually appealing and irresistible that it inadvertently turned into a public health risk.

Disrupting the wash

Tide, which arrived on the US market in 1946 as the first synthetic detergent, has long been one of P&G's most important brands on a roster that includes Gillette, Pampers, Dawn, Bounty and other staples of American homes.

Tide came to dominate the detergent sector and was at one point P&G's largest US brand. Within the company, working on Tide has been a coveted job and often a stepping stone to the executive suite.

Tide Pods was not P&G's first attempt to develop a laundry tablet.

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In 1960, P&G launched Salvo, a compressed powered tablet. It was on the market for about five years years. In 2000, P&G introduced Tide Tabs: tablets filled with powder detergent. But the company pulled them off the market two years later -- the powder tablets didn't always dissolve completely and they worked only in hot water.

"It wasn't even close to hitting the goals," one former P&G employee later told The Wall Street Journal.

P&G's next attempt -- creating a tablet with liquid that would eventually become Tide Pods -- was a hugely difficult engineering task. It involved more than 75 employees and 450 different packaging and product sketches. Thousands of consumers were surveyed.

The goal was to "disrupt the 'sleep-washing' " among consumers who "automatically pick up" detergent, P&G's marketing director for North American fabric care told The New York Times. "We want to shake this category up with innovation."

At the Academy Awards telecast in 2012, P&G introduced Tide Pods in a sparkling, vibrant commercial with the tagline "Pop In. Stand Out." The spot encouraged customers to "pop" Tide Pods into the washing machine and watch their clothing "pop" with brightness. P&G spent $150 million on an advertising blitz rolling out Tide Pods to consumers.

'Food imitating products'

Within a year, Tide Pods crossed $500 million in sales in North America and controlled about 75% of the market for single-dose laundry packets, the company said at the time. The product was so successful that other manufacturers raced to create similar versions.

Tide Pods appealed to customers with its lightweight design, blue, orange and white-striped swirl and soft, squishy feel.

Today, it features a patented three-chamber design that separates detergent (the green compartment), stain remover (white) and whitener (blue). P&G did not say why it changed the colors.

Even Tide Pods packaging was distinct.

The company developed a see-through fishbowl-shaped plastic container that showed the pods clearly to stand out on the shelf. People also liked how the Tide Pods felt in their hands, researchers found.

Tide Pods' design was reflective of a long strategy of consumer product makers designing cleaners and personal hygiene products that exhibited food or drink attributes, according Dr. Frédéric Basso, a professor at The London School of Economics and Political Science, who has researched this trend, known as "food imitating products."

Other examples of this tactic include bottles shaped like soft drinks and labels that depict colorful fruits.

By developing products that create links to food, play or other positive experiences, customers are less likely to automatically associate these items with an unpleasant or boring chore, Basso said.

"Tide Pods obviously remind people of foods, especially foods that have been made to appeal to children," John Allen, an anthropologist at Indiana University and author of "The Omnivorous Mind: Our Evolving Relationship with Food," said in an email. It's "bite sized, processed, colorful, with a non-threatening texture, sort of like a cross between candy and a chicken nugget."

Unintended consequences

But Tide Pods' appearance held an unforeseen threat.

Young children and elderly people with dementia started popping them into their mouths. Within two months after Tide Pods' launch, nearly 250 cases of young children eating detergent packs were reported to poison control centers around the United States.

P&G quickly responded to safety issues by making Tide Pods packages more difficult to open, with a double-latch to the lid. A year later, the packaging was changed to orange from the original clear plastic that resembled candy bowls. Since then, P&G has made a number of other changes that made Tide Pods' packages more child-resistant, and it enhanced the warning labels.

P&G said accidents among young children result primarily from incorrect safekeeping and access to laundry packets, not the color of the pods. The company pointed to a 2017 study that found color does not play a critical role in accidental exposures to laundry pods.

The company has an ongoing safety campaign on Tide Pods to educate consumers about proper use and storage of the product, a P&G spokesperson said. It includes advertising and content partnerships with online parenting channels.

Still, laundry detergent pods by Tide and other companies were involved in two deaths and two dozen life-threatening poisonings in 2013 and 2014. US poison control centers received more than 37,000 calls in those years involving children younger than six, according to one study.

Between 2012 and 2017, eight deaths were reported Consumer Product Safety Commission. Two of the cases were young children and six were adults with dementia.

In 2015, Consumer Reports said laundry pods were too risky to recommend because of their safety issues.

That year, P&G and other manufacturers adopted voluntary standards for laundry packets aimed at reducing accidents involving young children. Led by P&G, manufacturers agreed to keep the capsules in opaque containers, coat them in a bitter or foul-tasting substance and strengthen them to reduce the risk of bursting when they're squeezed.

A P&G spokesperson said that the standard has led to a steep decline in the rate of accidents in recent years, even as more people use laundry packets.

Despite P&G's efforts to make Tide Pods' packaging and design safer and warn consumers on risks, a Tide Pods "challenge" meme spread rapidly on social media among teenagers daring others to swallow the pods in early 2018. Tide partnered with then-New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski to issue a PSA and launched a safety campaign on social media.

At the time, New York lawmakers called for P&G to change Tide Pods' design to make them look less edible. Lawmakers in the state introduced a bill that would require all detergent packages sold in New York to be of a uniform color that is "unattractive to children."

But P&G said accidents happen whether the product has no color, one color, or multiple colors and there is insufficient evidence to show that any color is linked to safety improvements.

Storing Tide Pods out of the reach of children, the company said, is the most important safety prevention measure.