Why would anyone willingly risk their health to eat a toxic Tide laundry detergent pod?
Most adults are probably baffled by a viral Internet meme that has inspired dozens of young people to ingest the colorful capsules filled with laundry detergent for internet laughs. Indeed, both the Tide brand and health professionals have urged the public not to eat the pods, as even a small amount of the detergent can cause diarrhea, vomiting, breathing issues and, at worst, death.
Yet if you were perplexed, even baffled, by the staying power of internet jokes about absurd, brand-inspired forms of suicide, there’s a simple explanation. Millennials — who were born and raised on the internet and produce and consume much of their culture there — have had our whole lives characterized by economic anxiety. We have a dismal economic outlook, the worst of any generation born since the Great Depression. And our own culture-making — this kind of nihilistic, cynical humor epitomized in memes like eating Tide Pods — is merely a reflection of our worldview. It is cathartic in a sense. And it’s not the first time in history a generation has behaved this way in response to the world they were brought up in.
Generational jokes about death via consumer goods aren’t new. Before the Tide Pod meme there was the “drinking bleach” meme, a joke about committing suicide by (obviously) drinking bleach. Social media subcultures like Weird Facebook and Black Twitter share images of bleach in response to undesirable content or to self-deprecate about their mental health. Building on the Tide Pod meme, the Forbidden Snacks meme includes ingesting other household objects that resemble edible treats such as Dungeons and Dragons dice, bath bombs and Himalayan Salt Lamps, to name a few.
What makes millennial humor so nihilistic and absurdist? I think the best way to understand memes like these is to analogize them to a century-old movement: Dadaism. The Dada movement evolved in reaction to World War I and disillusionment over war, violence, capitalism and nationalism. The original Dadaists were European radical leftists who traded the reason, rationale and aestheticism of the warmongering status quo for absurdity, irrationality and anti-capitalism. They rejected conventional notions of art, in turn creating anti-art with no clear purpose that mirrored the senselessness of war.
Later, in the Cold War era, Neo-Dada arose in response to the consumer culture and mass media of the 1950s. See any parallels today?
“The Greatest Generation” suffered through the Great Depression and World War II. Having lived through scarcity and war, they did not want their children to experience the same hardships. As a result, “Baby Boomers” were raised in a world of supposed abundance and to believe they should never live without. Boomers lived during a time of significant prosperity with widespread access to resources, education and a thriving job market. Just as the dismal worldview of millennial internet memes sprang from the fount of economic anxiety, the utopianism of the 1960s counterculture sprang from their far sunnier-seeming world.
By the late 1990s, boomers had gained the greatest social, political and economic influence worldwide, and with this, a multitude of long-percolating crises reached their boiling points – climate change, national debt, and a shrinking middle class, to name a few.