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Painting by Chloe Wise.

The Millennial Paradox of Tide PODS

Erin Schwartz

Erin Schwartz

Accompanied by an original artwork​ from Chloe Wise, our generation's consummate painter of food, GARAGE undertakes an exploration of Tide PODS: why?

Painting by Chloe Wise.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a multinational consumer goods company, once it has saturated its market, must be in want of a new product. The product becomes its own raison d’être: think bottled water, Coors Light color-changing cans, and avocado slicers. It’s also true that this reality is represented better in satire than straightforward reporting. (One notable exception: Bloomberg Businessweek's excellent feature on the tech-fueled comeback of Domino’s.) Consider the Onion’s “Little Caesars Marketing New Marshmallows ’N’ Gravy Pizza Directly To President,” “‘What If We Put M&M’s On Top? Would They Eat That?’ Doritos Exec Wonders Out Loud,” and one fateful article titled “Tide Debuts New Sour Apple Detergent Pods” published in July 2017, portending the Tide POD Challenge that, today, has teens biting into sacs of highly concentrated liquid detergent on camera.

Why do Tide PODS exist? Is pouring laundry detergent into a cap and then into a washing machine really so onerous that it merits a shortcut? And is it possible that Tide actually knew that the pods are a bit useless and opted to compensate by designing an irresistible product, as jewel-bright and mouth-wateringly plump as a supersized Fruit Gusher or an ikura and caviar-stuffed ravioli?

Painting by Chloe Wise.


There will be no definitive answer until some brave whistleblower leaks a dossier of Tide R&D files—but until then, we have our educated guesses. Artist Chloe Wise, the millennial Arcimboldo known for her Bread Bag series and for classically composed portraits slyly populated with processed foods and consumer objects, deadpanned in an email that “just like most other superfoods, the rich color indicates the antioxidant qualities inherent to the Tide POD.” (She painted the pod above for GARAGE.) The idea that people might want to eat Tide PODS has been circulating since a CollegeHumor video riffed on it last March and cohered as the Forbidden Snacks meme last November, the detergent pods grouped with Lush Bath Bombs and rainbow pencil grips as alluring but inedible consumer goods. Tide has long been aware of the pod’s siren song: in 2012, the CDC issued a warning that children were ingesting laundry pods, and in 2015, the company added a bitter coating to the pods' outer membrane to discourage kids from biting into them, but they didn't fundamentally change the design.

“Part of the millennial paradox lies in our knowledge of the manipulative nature of advertising to co-opt our identities in order to sell them back to us, and, simultaneously, our awareness of our own collective helplessness when it comes to the systems at work surrounding our consumer habits,” explained Wise. “The tension here lies in our ‘woke-ness’ and our simultaneous inability to break outside of these systems, leaving us in this hybrid state, as liberated prisoners, so to speak. I think the tendency to create memes as a way of mimicking the tone of advertising, critiquing the system while simultaneously acknowledging it's banality and omnipresence, is a very contemporary way of negotiating criticism and helplessness.”

“Honestly," she added, "Can someone just cancel the reality TV show that is humanity in 2018?”

Tide POD meme courtesy Chloe Wise

According to a new report from the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC), there have been 86 cases in the first three weeks of 2018 of teenagers being poisoned after intentionally ingesting a laundry pod, which can cause seizures, chemical burns, and even death. (There were 53 cases in the same category in all of 2017; the first three weeks of 2018 represent a 62% increase in teen laundry pod self-poisonings compared to the entire previous year.) YouTube has begun removing Tide POD Challenge videos, and David Taylor, the CEO of Tide parent company Procter & Gamble, expressed his commitment to stopping the trend in a recent blog post.

Don’t eat Tide PODS. It’s incredibly dangerous. But has Tide, in marketing sacs of hyper-powered detergent by making them look like candy, taken the dance of consumer desire one step too far and opened a Pandora’s Box of viral memes? (Which, incidentally, sounds like the theme of a new meal combo at Pizza Hut.)

Better yet, feast your eyes (just your eyes!) on Wise’s Tide POD painting, which, in the artist’s imagination, tastes like “Skittles-flavored hot dog casing on the outside, a grape-flavored boiled potato on the inside.” Bon appétit.