retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

The juxtaposition was jarring. The earnest commercial touting the improved childproof packaging for Tide Pods aired at about 7:15 a.m. on the “CBS Morning News.” Ten minutes later, Tide Pods were back on screen – this time in a disturbing report about teenagers across the nation biting into the toxic detergent packets and posting their “Tide Pod Challenge” videos on social media.

Cringe-worthy clips of dare takers popping the brightly-colored detergent pods in their mouths – then gagging or coughing - have been exploding on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter for months. But the dangerous craze became mainstream news January 16th when the American Association for Poison Control Centers released alarming statistics about the trend.

The association said it was aware of at least 39 cases where people between the ages of 13 and 19 had “intentional exposure” to single-load laundry detergent packets in the first 15 days of the new year. By January 22 that number was up to 86 – compared to 53 cases reported for all of 2017. This week, the number of intentional exposures for that age group jumped to 134. Potential effects from misuse include: seizures, pulmonary edema, respiratory arrest, coma, and even death.

Let’s face it. Kids have been pulling stupid and dangerous stunts forever. But social media has radically upped the ante – the more outrageous the antic, the more clicks and views on YouTube or Facebook.

While the 2014 Ice Bucket Challenge that raised more than $200 million worldwide to fight Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) illustrated the positive power of social media, the current Tide Pod Challenge exemplifies all of the negatives.

So what does the maker of Tide, the nation’s leading laundry detergent, do to combat this so-called “challenge”? Particularly amid calls that the Procter & Gamble brand yank Tide Pods from the shelves until the packaging can be changed? And reports that at least two Walmarts in California are placing Tide Pods in a locked glass case?

Tide is facing it head on, with an assist from New England Patriots’ superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski, YouTube, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter and the nation’s consumer protection agencies.

The colorful and often-controversial Gronkowski had appeared in a Tide ad last year, so Tide was wise to tap him for a Public Service Announcement airing on social media. When asked: “Hey, Gronk, is eating Tide Pods ever a good idea?” His response: “NO NO NO NO NO. … What the heck is going on, people? Use Tide Pods for washing, not eating. Do not eat.” (It has almost 10 million views on Twitter.)

Google, which owns YouTube, and Facebook announced they would take down any video clips showing users biting into the laundry packets, citing policies to prohibit content encouraging dangerous activities that have an inherent risk of physical harm. Amazon said it would delete any online comments referring to the taste of a laundry packet product.

When the innovative Tide Pods were first introduced six years ago, there was immediate concern about toddlers being drawn to the candy-colored packets and ingesting them. The Consumer Product Safety Commission said eight deaths were linked to laundry detergent packet ingestion from 2012 through 2017. Two were children and six were adults with cognitive impairment. In response, Tide coated the pods with a bitter taste and implemented “Child-Gard” packaging.

In this case, I think Tide has done a good job following three tenets of brand crisis management outlined by Wharton School marketing professor Americus Reed in a recent podcast: “You have to validate concerns. You have to show action. And you have to control the narrative.”

Going forward, Tide must continue to be proactive, responding to concerns on social media (including advising people to call their local poison control center or physician if needed) and working with consumer groups and educators to reach young people directly.

Sara Stickler, executive director of the Alliance for Consumer Education, stressed the importance of peer-to-peer influence. “Teens listen better to each other than they do authority figures. We need them to say to their friends: ‘This is dangerous. It’s not funny. It’s very serious.’ ”

Noting that inhalant abuse by teenagers has long been a problem, Stickler added: “There are 1,400 different products kids can abuse. The best solution is education and awareness.”

I checked out the packaging on single load detergent packets – Tide Pods, Gain Flings, All Mighty Pacs and Persil ProClean – at my local supermarket. All featured bold warnings (HARMFUL IF PUT IN MOUTH OR SWALLOWED) and symbols on the front. Which begs the question: Should Tide and its competitors stamp “Do not eat” or print on poison symbol on each individual product?

Maybe. It would be one more way for P&G to show action and determine the narrative.

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