There truly is something tantalizing about a Tide Pod. Perhaps it’s the buoyancy of the skin or the azure and verdant green that shines through the casing. The eroticism of the curvaceous plastic and the vibrant colors are aesthetically appealing, an ingenious marketing technique by Tide. But therein lies the problem: these capsules of whimsy are made by Tide, not Hershey’s. The pods are designed to wash your clothing and maybe even scent them with subtle lavender, not to satisfy an uncontrollable sweet tooth or the adventurous eater in your family. I am sure that wherever one goes to buy Tide Pods, candy is also available. But nonetheless, if you own a computer and have been on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and most notably in the depths of Reddit, you have undoubtedly heard of the Tide Pod Challenge.
It is pretty self-explanatory. Someone sits in front of their camera and puts a tide pod in their mouth. They will probably drink some water and begin to writhe in pain, but in their distress they will continue to prop themselves in front of their camera, straining even more when the pain intensifies. Obviously, the question of “why?” persists. Why do people allow detergent to char their stomachs and induce crippling diarrhea? The clearest answer is attention — one’s masochism is justified by the reactions of viewers. Whether the viewer is surprised, disgusted, or amused, the Tide Pod challenge provokes a rather visceral response. I may be skeptical, but thousands of people are not. Before YouTube pulled the videos down, they racked up tens of thousands of hits and inspired other like-minded individuals to prop themselves in front of their cameras and snack on a Tide Pod.
It is hard not to psychoanalyze the viewership too. Are people simply sadistic, finding pleasure in seeing others choke and gag on camera? I wanted to know, so I ventured through my day asking people what they thought of the Tide Pod Challenge. The responses were universally negative but answers ranged widely in intensity. When asked, Katie, a first-year, said, “I think that people who participate are ill-informed and that people who decide to actually eat it should be weaned out by natural selection. If you wanna [sic] eat the tide pod and die, fine.” Katie clearly had strong opinions which led me to believe that perhaps she personally had had an interaction with a Tide Pod. So I asked, “Do you know anyone who has eaten one?” She smiled at the question and said, “Yes. But they did not eat the full pod. They put [it] in their mouth without realizing that water activates the melting technology releasing the fluids inside that could kill you.” Katie’s answer made me feel as though more people than expected had been tempted by the Tide Pod Challenge. A mutual friend heard the question and exclaimed, “I don’t really know what it is but I think it’s, like, just an opportunity to display hubris… like it is a competition for the competition itself. It is extremely temporal and dumb.” My own roommate Jake was well acquainted with the challenge and wholeheartedly agreed that it was idiotic. But when asked whether he saw the allure of Tide Pods, he still noted, “I could definitely see the appeal.”
Though frequently hailed as a recent phenomenon, this isn’t the first time audiences have been captivated by a dangerous challenge. Several years ago, videos began appearing on every sharing platform of people shoveling spoonfuls of cinnamon into their mouths. Yes, attempting to ingest (and eventually inhaling) cinnamon is less dangerous than the Tide Pod Challenge, but many still wound up in the hospital with respiratory complications. While seemingly simple enough, the catch here is that the cinnamon covers your entire mouth in a thin coat of arid dust. You are then unable to produce any spit to swallow, and cinnamon flies back out through your mouth (or your nostrils, if you are lucky). I can personally attest, for I myself have indulged in the cinnamon challenge. I was alone without any type of audience. I was in my kitchen at about 1:00 in the morning. Having watched the video of a YouTuber named Glozell a day earlier, I was sure that I could produce a video of comparable humor and success. I set up my photo booth and poured a heavy-handed amount of cinnamon into a table spoon. Thinking this would be no problem, I didn’t set myself up with a glass of water or anything to facilitate the process. I closed my eyes and bit down. Immediately my mouth was inundated by dryness. My tongue was blanketed in an acrid film, and I gasped for air. A cloud of cinnamon erupted from my mouth, and I coughed throatily into my hands. I naturally woke up my mother, whose intuition told her I was dying. The scene must have seemed absurd: I was coughing up cinnamon as my mother ran downstairs in her nightgown, frantically asking if I was okay. My parents could not understand my incentive to eat a spoonful of cinnamon, and, truth be told, I wasn’t sure I knew either. I didn’t really intend to upload the video; I think I just wanted to know what it would be like. So the cinnamon challenge had not given me fame, but rather lack of access to my kitchen unattended.
It is easy to become swept up in a viral sensation. “Why not join?” you ask yourself. So while the Tide Pod Challenge might seem like a harmless, passing trend, it is something more dangerous: it is the evolution of online self-mutilation. This may seem dramatic, but when people are sent to the hospital or even dying for something that could so easily be avoided, it is clearly a problem. We’ve seen challenges shift from eating cinnamon to putting a condom in your nose and pulling it out your mouth to eating the world’s spiciest pepper. What comes next? Something more dangerous? We need to stop applauding people who risk their health in order to amass views. Whenever the next online challenge pops up, rather than succumbing to the pressure to put your body at risk, or adding to that pressure for others, just don’t.