The calls to the Marseilles, France, poison control center read like absurd comedy sketches.

"Hello, I'm calling because there is someone beside me who just put a bleach tablet in his mouth.”

It seems possible the caller is also the victim, a 21-year-old male. Confused, the physician on the line asks, "It's a mistake? An error?"

"He thought it was a candy."

Intelligent, healthy adults are constantly mistaking household cleaners for food, inadvertently poisoning themselves and, in some cases, dying from their mistake. It happens so often that neuroscientists are studying the brain to learn the root cause. The main reason, they say, is that the makers of cleaning products use smells, tastes, and packaging designs that mimic food. Ajax, for example, has an orange on the bottle, just like orange juice. Fabuloso, the floor cleaner, looks and smells like Cool-Aid — and even, apparently, tastes halfway decent.

Scientists have a name for these. They’re food imitating products, or FIPs, designed in such a way that when we see them our brains flash an automated message: “Hygiene products are food.” That’s according to a study out this week in the journal PLOS ONE. The authors write that marketing a cleaning product is difficult because it has inherent, “not-so-entertaining … baggage,” like sweeping and scrubbing. To overcome this, marketers use “metaphors associated with food, the latter being way more appealing and pleasurable than hygiene products.”

It’s tempting to write the whole thing off as a fluke rather than an actual trend to be studied. But in fact, researchers have already studied that question: Is this for real? In 2006, a team of scientists examined nearly four months of calls to the Texas Poison Center Network. They were looking solely for calls that mentioned Fabuloso, and, astonishingly, they found 94 accidental ingestions. Among these, more than one-third of the victims were older than 20. “Our study demonstrates that this product is not infrequently ingested due to a probable case of mistaken identity, with a vast majority of calls occurring after accidental exposure,” an author told the health news blog Consultant Live. The French authors of the new study wanted to find more examples, so they dove into a set of more than 30,000 calls to the poison center in Marseilles and pulled out transcripts of the conversations.

One man had just come back from the grocery store, and his wife thought she’d have a swig of orange juice. The “flashy” bottle was, in fact, Cottage Happy Shower Tequila Sunrise. “It’s a shower gel,” the man said, “let me explain...” In another, a wife calls for her husband, who wanted cough syrup but instead swallowed “some soap, but a liquid one with a tomato leaf flavor.”

Some products are exceptionally deceptive. “So you drank a bit of Mir dish liquid?” the doctor asked. “That is, you thought it was [sugar] syrup, or it was some leftover [dish liquid] in a glass?”

“Excuse me?” the patient said.

“How was it? You took it for syrup by yourself, or was there some leftover in a glass?”

“…for muscatel wine!”

“For muscatel wine! Well, well.”

“Same color.”

Frédéric Basso, of the London School of Economics and Political Science, who led the study, along with several colleagues, concluded that “the voluntarily evoked experience of food consumption for marketing purposes ... leads people to drink shampoo." In other words, this is more than a case of mistaken identity. The product is actively luring people, subconsciously channeling their brains, saying drink me.


They know this because they conducted a brain imaging study. Previous work had shown that specific regions of the brain light up when people think about food. Basso and friends wanted to know whether those same regions light up when people look at FIPs. So they did a test, hooking test subjects up to fMRI, and showing them different product packaging (with text removed), including Cottage Happy Shower Tequila Sunrise (left), orange juice (second from left) and non-FIP bleach (right). As predicted, people’s brains salivated over orange juice and shampoo, but not the non-FIP cleaner.

So what does this mean? Have we no control over our brains and our actions? According to this study, in some cases, however briefly, it's true: Sometimes the advertising takes over, and we drink the Fabuloso. That’s why the authors mildly suggest that regulators consider safety measures on FIPs. In the United States, Colgate-Palmolive, the maker of Fabuloso, added a child-proof cap after Consumer Reports raised the issue. Such restraint should be more common, Basso says. He says his team’s methodology “can help screening products prior to their market release … and therefore save lives.”

Source: F. Basso, et al. Why people drink shampoo? Food imitating products are fooling brains and endangering consumers for marketing purposes. PLOS ONE. 2014.