How do brands cope with their product becoming wildly popular for unintended reasons?

Calum Marsh: It pays to exploit all this popularity, even if isn’t the popularity you want

"Do Not Insert Swab Into Ear Canal." ...Right? Getty Images

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Six words on the back of every box of Q-tips form the most bewildering disclaimer in the history of consumer goods: “Do Not Insert Swab Into Ear Canal.”

What?

A Q-tip, that familiar stick bracketed by soft cotton on either end, seems made to clean the ears — inserting the swab into the ear canal is surely the point of its existence. Except that, according to the manufacturer, they are not made to clean the ears at all. “Q-tips cotton swabs are perfect for arts and crafts, manicures, makeup application, cleaning and more,” reads the official Q-tips website. A closer look reveals the fine print: “Different uses for our cotton swabs include beauty, baby care, home and electronics, and first aid.” One finds no mention of how Q-tips are actually used. As far as Unilever is concerned, ear-cleaning is a misapplication of the Q-tip. 

Unilever is obliged to caution buyers against the dangers of misusing its most popular product. The company “sells a product it knows is used primarily for a purpose that any doctor in America will tell you is one of the most dangerous things you can do to your body from a standing position in the bathroom,” an editorial in Time joked in mock outrage in 2001. “Between 1992 and 1997, more than 100 people experienced a serious eardrum injury as a result of cleaning their ears with Q-tips. Countless others came down with cases of tinnitus.” Consult any medical journal, health forum or otolaryngologist and you will hear the same chorus of admonition: it is extremely dangerous to use cotton swabs to remove wax from your ears.

Naturally, it would be irresponsible of Unilever to advertise Q-tips as appropriate for this purpose. On the other hand, a product so popular must be indispensably lucrative. So why worry if it’s popular in the wrong way?

Marketing is a complicated science, to be sure, and how goods are sold involves a currency of ideas sometimes too elusive for the consumer to readily comprehend.

Marketing is a complicated science, to be sure, and how goods are sold involves a currency of ideas sometimes too elusive for the consumer to readily comprehend. But one tenet seems relatively straightforward: a successful brand has positive associations. If you sell fast food, you want that food to conjure images of comfort, delight, economy; if you sell a kind of soda pop, you want its name to evoke feelings of cheer, excitement, pleasure. What you probably do not want is for the product to bring to mind the opposite of whatever you intended — particularly if the thing brought to mind has a good chance of putting your buyers in the hospital. A company such as Unilever has an interest in shaping our perception of its wares: it aspires to make Q-tip synonymous with, for instance, cleaning between the keys of a computer keyboard, rather than the connotation it can’t shake. Ear-cleaning is a Q-tip marketing failure, even as that failure is directly responsible for its success.

On January 7th, 2018, a YouTuber named TheAaronSwan669 uploaded a video of himself eating detergent, a semi-ironic feat of extravagant lunacy he dubbed, in keeping with such trends, The Tide Pod Challenge. Tide Pods are the nifty little self-contained laundry pacs the company launched in 2012 to considerable enthusiasm. They appear colourful and candy-like, and Tide has always been careful to warn consumers to keep them away from kids, who might mistake them for an appetizing treat.

A satirical article in The Onion in 2015 riffed on the appeal to a child: “From the very second I saw those blue and red detergent pods come out of that shopping bag last week,” a fictitious boy editorializes, “I knew immediately that, come hell or high water, I would eat one of those things.” A couple of years later, real kids on YouTube made this joke into a full-blown trend. Eat some Tide Pods, the videos dared. If the damn things are fatally toxic, all the better for the fun.

As the Tide Pod Challenge spread across the internet, mainstream news outlets took note, and it wasn’t long before newspapers, daytime talk shows and a whole stratum of concerned parents online were declaring a state of emergency over the self-poisoning antics of the unpredictable Kids These Days. Their alarm was overblown: the Tide Pod Challenge was one of those mock-earnest stunts that savvy teenage pranksters do, as they say on the internet, “for the lulz,” and there never was any mad nationwide descent into rabid detergent consumption.

More people were talking about, and indeed buying, Tide Pods than ever. The reason just happened to be bad.

But the “kids are eating Tide Pods” narrative was much too sensational for the world to ignore, and Procter & Gamble, who owns Tide, was soon obliged to address this apparent new craze, adding new warning labels to their packaging, redesigning the look of the pod to something less overtly delectable, and running advertisements that exhorted children to stop scarfing these things down. It was a delicate situation. More people were talking about, and indeed buying, Tide Pods than ever. The reason just happened to be bad.

If you are Smirnoff, and a lot of people are buying your vodka coolers who ordinarily would not, does it matter, really, if the reason is for messing with their friends? That was the crisis of identity they faced more than a decade ago, when “Icing” — a ritual among fraternity types in which somebody surprised by the appearance of a bottle of Smirnoff Ice must chug it in its entirety on the spot — briefly made the drink a barroom and house-party phenomenon. The gag was premised on the fact that most people find Smirnoff Ice so unpleasant that drinking it was considered an outrageous punishment; but, thanks to the gag, they were drinking it, and in unprecedented numbers. People were not quite using the product dangerously, or even “wrong.” And what could Smirnoff do, short of telling people to stop making fun of it? Icing moved units, which is ultimately the goal. It’s not that ends justify means; it’s that if that ends are lucrative, the means are irrelevant.

A recent case of popularity gone wrong is among the most peculiar. Bird Box, the feature-length adaptation of the novel by Josh Malerman that Netflix released at the end of last year, has been celebrated by the streaming service as one of its most successful original productions in the history of the platform. However, that success has had an unexpected consequence: the “Bird Box Challenge,” another viral stunt, this time featuring videos of people attempting to perform everyday tasks while blindfolded, in a nod to the film. Like the Tide Pod Challenge, this Bird Box Challenge has secured the movie further column inches, worldwide notoriety and a place in the conversation no amount of advertising could buy. Also like the Tide Pod Challenge, it’s proven such a risk to consumers that Netflix has had to issue advisories warning people against trying it at home. Doubtless some who hear about this game have watched the film to see what the fuss is about — a win for Netflix. Yet again, some wins don’t quite feel right.

What’s a company to do? There is a sense in which, if sales are up, no reason for sudden interest in a product is the wrong kind: all publicity is good publicity. Quashing a misperception or meme that’s otherwise compelling people to buy your product could of course compel them to stop altogether, which won’t do unless you feel there’s a moral responsibility to remove dangerous Tide Pods or Q-tips from the market for the sake of the public good. So, it pays to exploit all this popularity, even if isn’t the popularity you want.

Corporations are too greedy to be particular about this sort of thing, at the end of the day. When the consumer takes a product into their own hands and does something unplanned with it, brands have to appreciate that at least it’s their product being bought. You would have to say the only thing worse than the widespread misappropriation of a product, from the brand’s point of view, is its total disregard. Because if nothing else, we all know the name Q-tips.