Rounded shapes and playful colours, design features that are pleasant to the eye, can increase the appeal of a product to consumers. Visual design can thus be recruited to the benefit of product marketing. But what if the appearance of the product is misleading and might convey the wrong invitation to some consumers? For instance, tasting a product that is inedible, due to chemicals it contains, can cause some inadvertent, adverse results to one’s health. A case in example is the laundry detergent packet of Tide by P&G, the Tide POD. This case touches on tensions between design and safety hazards. It does not sound reasonable that design in the interest of visual appeal would come before the interest of physical safety.

Laundry detergents have come for many years in forms of powder and liquid; the packet or capsule was added in the last decade. Procter and Gamble introduced its innovative Tide Pods in 2012. Each Tide Pod is built of three compartments. Liquid of detergent ingredients is captured in each compartment. The wrapping transparent film dissolves in water to free the different ingredients from Pod compartments. A key attractive benefit of the packet or pod for consumers is its easy application — simply drop a Pod in the drum of the laundry machine, instead of measuring and putting powder or liquid in the detergent compartments of the machine’s drawer (‘How Tide Pods Work‘, P&G). This benefit is contingent on a promise that using one packet or pod would be as effective in removing stains as applying a combination of detergents of the more traditional types in a washer’s compartments.

The three Tide Pod’s compartments were originally coloured in white, blue and orange (orange, associated with the Tide brand, was later replaced by green). Furthermore, compartments are shaped as curved swirls. The impression of colour and shape may symbolise dynamic action of the Pod, and perhaps also cleanliness. However, it turned out that these same features of the packet-pod could also cause children to interpret them as candies. A squishy tactile feeling of the pod may contribute to this perception of a candy treat. When any person, a child or adult, bites a pod, ingredients are immediately released and pumped into the throat, starting (within 30 minutes) a series of reactions that includes vomiting, filling the lungs with fluid, blocking the airways, and creation of bubbles that can lead to suffocation. This chain of reactions can be devastating for small children, but may be dangerous enough for youths and adults as well (Fortune, March 2019 [1]).

The most vulnerable group to detergent packets-pods are children under the age of six. Yet, a secondary vulnerable group includes adults who suffer from cognitive disabilities (e.g., due to dementia, a stroke). Most known cases by large are of small children, but there have been reported cases of compromised adults who mistook the pods to be food they could eat. From 2011 to 2013, the first full year of Tide Pod in the market, the number of laundry-detergent-related visits of small children to emergency rooms in the US more than tripled (from nearly 3,000 to 9,000 cases). Children under the age of six accounted for approximately 90%-95% of pod-related ER visits between 2013 and 2017 (the total number of visits decreased somewhat in 2016, but the proportion of older patients {6y+} got higher). Pods took a share of 16% of the American laundry detergent market in 2017 (with 84% share for other detergent types), whereas 80% of detergent-related injuries were attributed to pods.

  • Child psychologist Mariana Brussoni explained to Fortune a distinction she makes between toddlers, ages 1-2 years, who are too young to know what is appropriate to eat and like to experiment by putting things in their mouth, and kids ages three and up who are past that stage but are the ones more prone to misperceive the Pods and recognise them as looking like candy. For either age group it seems the appearance of Pods was intriguing or tempting enough to try them out (that should be true also for adults whose cognitive abilities have been compromised).

The Tide Pod’s problem received quite a bizarre twist in 2017 when young people, mostly teenagers, have shown themselves biting Pods in video clips on social media platforms, calling it the Tide Pod Challenge. Some of them were inflicted by the typical adverse effects of taking-in detergent ingredients of the Pods. They may have been driven by curiosity and adventurism. It is unlikely that the teenagers have mistaken the Pods for candies, and it is also hard to believe that they intended to cause themselves harm. The more likely explanation is that in biting the Pods they were not thinking through the possible consequences of their conduct: Teenagers tend to learn quickly but are lacking insight and judgement, and are more open to risk-taking, possibly believing themselves to be ‘invincible’ [2]. Another factor that has strong impact on young adolescents nowadays is the influence among peers in social media networks: firstly, they are more pressed and easily influenced by calls from ‘peers’ to take precarious actions, secondly they are more likely to seek attention, and gain it by uploading video clips of themselves doing all kinds of things, including while taking on such ‘challenges’ [2 & 3].

Procter and Gamble, to their credit, responded quickly and decisively by launching a public campaign whose main focus was to make it loud and clear to young people how stupid it is to taste their Tide Pods and to warn against eating them [3]. It may be said that at least the challenge affair helped in raising public attention to risks and adverse effects invoked by Tide Pods, though the multiplicity of references dedicated to the challenge (as found through a Google search) could have also distracted attention from the greater problem, that is the harm that biting Pods can cause to unaware vulnerable individuals (cf. the article in Fortune). It still seems necessary for P&G to enquire what in the design of their Pods allures consumers of any of those groups, more and less vulnerable, to chew these packets.

  • While the Tide Pods are at the centre of this post, they are not the only kind of detergent packets or capsules available in the market. In the category of laundry, P&G itself offers now packets under the Ariel brand (similar form as Tide, with compartment in white, green and blue). From other companies, Reckitt Benckiser (RB) offers the Calgon packets (compartments in green and blue), and Persil by Henkel has two types of capsules for laundry: Caps and Discs 4in1 (designs in four colours).
  • Furthermore, packets are also available for dish washers: for example, P&G’s Cascade (Platinum ActionPacs), and RB’s Finish (rectangular cube, sky blue on top with the red ball in centre (comment: this packet looks more like soap and less appetising).

The problem revealed with Tide Pods leaves open the question of who is responsible for reducing the risks and potential harm from detergent packets: the companies or the consumers. It is not merely a question of who should be held accountable, but more importantly who bears greater responsibility to take action to diminish risk and harm. Companies, regulators & lawmakers, and consumer advocates continue debating (and quarreling on) this issue. The risk that detergent liquids and powders at home would be swallowed (e.g., by children), and the harm that this may cause, have been known for a long time. But the packaging usually is less confusing, and parents (or other caretakers) have been strongly advised to keep them in high places or closed cupboards, and away from reach of those vulnerable. Yet something happened with the Pods: the product design was more tempting and confusing, adult family members were less aware of the potential false allure of the laundry detergent packets, and guards of P&G and consumers became lower. Parents are expected to watch out all the time that those Pods are out of reach of children, but they may not be able to ensure doing so every moment, and one moment of inattention proved to be enough to get in trouble. Conversely, companies should not be expected to give up on the marketing advantages of appealing visual design of products, and make them unattractive, in order to avoid any risks that they could be misused — consumers need to understand the product they use and take necessary precautions.

Therefore, this seems a matter of shared responsibility; yet greater responsibility falls with the companies that develop and manufacture the product, such as the laundry detergent packets-pods (e.g., by applying more vigorously methods and techniques of Design Thinking). Companies cannot rely on consumers to be alert and cautious all the time, and they have the better means to take measures to diminish the potential risks and harm involved. Different measures indeed have been suggested and already applied in this area; they include, for example, making the wrapping film thicker and harder to puncture; giving the pod’s exterior a bitter deterring taste before biting; making a container box opaque rather than transparent; making the sealing of the containing box or bag harder to open; and even changing somewhat the pod’s design (e.g., choose colours that are more neutral, less cute or intriguing, and less resembling a candy, for instance by replacing orange with green).

Other suggestions have been made to enclose each pod with individual paper wrapping and to colour a pod with a single hue. These measures could be too restrictive for companies, and may not even be effective (e.g., candies and chocolate pralines are wrapped also individually). Nevertheless, a company like P&G may consider creating a sub-line of Pods with a single hue as a safer alternative for parents or other caretakers who are more concerned that their loved ones might be inadvertently harmed; it can be displayed in stores next to the packages of ‘normal’ designed Pods. It may be more costly to arrange for, but it should pay-off against the harm it can prevent and the recognition of consumers that the brand is attentive to their concerns.

The case of Tide Pods demonstrates the importance of striking a reasonable balance between visual appeal of product design and the message its sends to consumers-users of the product. This is essential because visual design is not only a matter of appearance and aesthetics but also a mode of communication (e.g., about the type and expected use of the product, its affordance). It may be furthermore crucial not to create a misleading design for those who may lack skills of interpreting it and thus become vulnerable to adverse effects of wrongly consuming it. For the sake of physical safety and well-being of consumers, companies need to account for the sensitivity of the balance between visual appeal and the message it sends.

Sources:

[1] “The Real Tide Pod Challenge”, Jake Meth, Fortune (Europe Edition), March 2019 (Volume 179, Number 3), pp. 48-56

[2] “Why Teenagers Eat Pods“, Claire McCarthy (MD), Harvard Health Publishing, 30 January 2018

[3] “Brand Crisis Management: Responding to the Tide Pod Challenge“, Knowledge@Wharton, Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania), 25 January 2018

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