P&G Grapples With How to Stop a Tide Pods Meme

Procter & Gamble Co. initially stayed on the sidelines after learning about an online challenge a few years ago where teens ate Tide laundry pods for sport.

But recent videos of the behavior that have gone viral prompted the consumer giant to act.

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The company, which also makes Pampers diapers, Dawn dish soap and Charmin tissue, launched a safety campaign on social media last week to counter the meme.

P&G found the challenge concerning from the start but worried that speaking out would make matters worse by drawing attention to it, adding to the allure for teens drawn to a potentially risky dare, a company spokesman said.

Concerns over Tide Pods, small packs of concentrated liquid detergent, have pestered the company since U.S. poison-control centers recorded thousands of incidents of small children coming into contact with that type of product.

Since the launch of Tide Pods in 2012, P&G has changed the appearance of packaging to make them look less like candy, added a bitter taste to the product and produced commercials warning parents to keep the pods out of reach of young children.

Now, teens have made a game out of biting into and even vaping the liquid in the capsules. Some are challenging their friends to do the same in social- media call-outs, sounding fresh alarm bells for P&G.

"No. No. No. What the heck is going on people. Use Tide Pods for washing, not eating," says football star Rob Gronkowski, in a video P&G posted to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

P&G also asked YouTube and Facebook to remove clips of teens eating the product and responded directly to users. Tide, through its Twitter account, has advised users who have mentioned participating in the challenge to call a doctor or the national poison help hotline.

Tyler Perry, a partner at public-relations firm Bateman Group, said it is important for companies to measure the reach of an internet trend before weighing in. But since consumer brands touch so many people "they could spend all day every day responding to people on social and not even come close to addressing them all," said Ms. Perry.

The proliferation of social media and user-generated content has made it harder for brands to control their images online. A Wall Street Journal study found in March that ads from companies including P&G were appearing next to objectionable content.

Other companies have had their products misused in viral videos on the internet. In 2014 Clorox Co. had a similar issue when teens were putting Burt's Bees lip balm on their eyelids to feel a sensation akin to a high. It isn't clear whether Clorox issued a public response to the so-called "beezin" videos. The company didn't respond to a request for comment.

Since the start of the year, poison-control centers across the country have reported 40 cases of people aged 13 to 19 years old intentionally ingesting laundry pods, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. The group reported 53 such cases last year and 39 cases in 2016. (In case of exposure call the national poison help hotline at 1-800-222-1222 or text POISON to 79797.)

"This is not about a 2-year-old grabbing something or a senior citizen with Alzheimer's, this is people intent on doing this challenge," said Bruce Ruck, a pharmacist and managing director of the New Jersey Poison Education and Information System at Rutgers University.

Mr. Ruck said the Tide Pods challenge is concerning because of its social nature and the tendency of teens to move on from one risky trend to something more dangerous. Social-media challenges involving cinnamon and bath salts have also been deemed dangerous by experts. "I'm scared of what comes next," he said.

Social-media companies largely put the onus on their users to flag problematic content, but a P&G spokesman said the companies have been cooperative.

A Facebook Inc. spokesperson said the company removes content that encourages physical harm once it becomes aware of it. YouTube said it also has a policy against material that encourages dangerous behavior and works to quickly remove flagged videos.

For now, the Tide Pods maker may have to wait for teens' attention to turn to the next meme.

Write to Imani Moise at imani.moise@wsj.com and Sharon Terlep at sharon.terlep@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 20, 2018 07:14 ET (12:14 GMT)