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

In 2004, Procter & Gamble was looking for success.

It had been two decades since the consumer products group introduced Tide liquid detergent, revolutionizing the way people did their laundry. Cheaper competitors and in-store brands disappeared from Tide’s dominance.

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

The company had to develop something so different that it would convince consumers to move away from liquid detergent. He set out to try and develop a distinctive palm-sized, liquid-filled detergent capsule that would draw shoppers’ eyes to the shelf and make laundry a little more exciting.

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

Tide Pods were a major hit. But P&G created a product so visually appealing and irresistible that it unwittingly became a public health hazard.

Washing disorder

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

Tide dominated the detergent business and at one point was P&G’s largest brand in the US. Within the company, working at Tide was a coveted job and often a stepping stone to the executive suite.

Tide Pods weren’t P&G’s first attempt at developing a laundry tablet.

These Tide Pod-inspired foods have all the fun, none of the danger

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

“They weren’t even close to meeting the goals,” a former P&G employee later told the Wall Street Journal.

P&G’s next effort — creating a liquid tablet that would eventually become Tide Pods — was an extremely difficult engineering project. It involved more than 75 employees and 450 different packaging and product sketches. Thousands of consumers were surveyed.

The goal was to “disrupt ‘sleep washing'” among consumers who “automatically collect” detergent, P&G’s North American fabric care marketing director told The New York Times. “We want to shake up this category with innovation.”

At the 2012 Academy Awards telecast, P&G featured Tide Pods in a sparkling, vibrant ad with the tagline “Pop In. Stand Out.” The spot encouraged customers to ‘pop’ Tide Pods into the washing machine and watch their clothes ‘pop’ with brightness. P&G spent $150 million on an advertising blitz that launched Tide Pods to consumers.

“Food Imitation Products”

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

Tide Pods delighted customers with their lightweight design, blue, orange and white swirl stripes and soft, squishy feel.

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

Even the Tide Pods packaging was special.

The company developed a clear plastic fish-shaped container that clearly showed the pods standing out on the shelf. People also liked how Tide Pods felt in their hands, researchers found.

The design of Tide Pods reflected a long strategy of consumer product manufacturers designing cleaners and personal care products that exhibited food or drink properties, according to Dr Frédéric Basso, a professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science who has researched the trend . , known as “food imitation products”.

Other examples of this tactic include soft drink-shaped bottles and labels depicting colorful fruit.

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

“Tide Pods apparently remind people of food, especially food made to appeal to children,” John Allen, an anthropologist at Indiana University and author of “The Pamnivorous Mind: Our Evolving Relationship with Food,” said in an email. It’s “bite-sized, processed, colorful, with a non-threatening texture, like a cross between candy and chicken nuggets.”

Unintended consequences

But the advent of Tide Pods had an unforeseen threat.

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

P&G quickly responded to security concerns by making Tide Pods packages more difficult to open, with a double latch on the lid. A year later, the packaging changed to orange from the original clear plastic that looked like a candy bowl. Since then, P&G has made several other changes that made Tide Pods packages more child-resistant and improved warning labels.

P&G said accidents among young children are mostly due to improper storage and access to clothing packages, 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 in clothing 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. Includes advertising and content partnerships with parent online channels.

However, laundry detergent containers from Tide and other companies were involved in two deaths and 20 life-threatening poisonings in 2013 and 2014. U.S. poison control centers received more than 37,000 calls in those years involving children under six, according to one study.

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

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

That year, P&G and other manufacturers adopted voluntary standards for laundry detergent packages aimed at reducing accidents involving young children. Led by P&G, manufacturers agreed to keep the capsules in opaque containers, coat them with a bitter or unpleasant substance, and reinforce them to reduce the risk of bursting when pressed.

A P&G spokesman said the standard has led to a sharp drop in the accident rate in recent years, even as more people use laundry packets.

Despite P&G’s efforts to make the packaging and design of Tide Pods safer and warn consumers of dangers, a Tide Pods “challenge” meme quickly spread on social media among teenagers daring others to swallow the pods early of 2018. The Tide partnered with then-New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski to issue a PSA and launch a social media safety campaign.

At the time, New York lawmakers asked P&G to change the design of Tide Pods to make them look less edible. Lawmakers in the state have introduced a bill that would require all detergent packaging sold in New York to be a uniform color that is unappealing to children.

However, P&G said accidents occur 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 precaution.

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