A truism of the internet, central to the work of researchers who study the spread of dangerous trends and misinformation, holds that attempting to discourage bad behavior can, if clumsily handled, reinforce the bad behavior by amplifying it to people who would have otherwise never considered it.
Which leads us to the NyQuil chicken.
In recent weeks, some people on TikTok, Twitter and other sites discovered years-old videos and images of people pouring blue-green NyQuil, a nighttime cold medicine, over chicken breasts in a pan or pot. It was, to be clear, a dangerous idea that no one should do — it could lead to consuming unsafe levels of the product, and over-the-counter medicines should be used only as directed.
But it was not clear if people were actually trying it themselves in significant numbers; most people commenting were expressing horror at the concept or making jokes about it. There have been no reports of hospitalizations or deaths related to NyQuil chicken, a tongue-in-cheek recipe that first surfaced in the notorious 4chan forum in 2017 and also received a spike of attention in January.
Still, the new flurry of interest in recent weeks caught the attention of the Food and Drug Administration, which issued a straight-faced notice on Sept. 15 advising against participating in what it called “a recent social media video challenge.”
“The challenge sounds silly and unappetizing — and it is,” the agency warned. “But it could also be very unsafe.”
The Spread of Misinformation and Falsehoods
It laid out the science behind why it was dangerous, concluding that “someone could take a dangerously high amount of the cough and cold medicine without even realizing it.”
The F.D.A.’s alert directly drew renewed attention to the dangerous dish. The next day, a few TV stations reported on the F.D.A.’s advisory, repeating the assertion that a dangerous trend was playing out. Days later, some of the nation’s biggest media organizations followed.
And on Tuesday, it was a trending topic on Twitter, with reaction videos spreading on TikTok and links to news articles aplenty on Facebook.
The whole affair left NyQuil, which is produced by Procter & Gamble, on the defensive. Responding to people on Twitter who appeared to be treating the concept, also called sleepy chicken, as a joke, the company’s Twitter account urged people not to try the recipe, declaring, “We do not endorse inappropriate use of our product.”
According to Know Your Meme, a website that chronicles the origins of internet phenomena, the first known reference to NyQuil chicken came when someone documented their apparent cooking experience in 2017 on 4chan, an often noxious message board where trolling was common and few things were to be taken too seriously. A few others on YouTube and TikTok recorded videos of the stunt in the following years.
Janet Yang, a professor of communication at the University at Buffalo, first heard about NyQuil chicken after being contacted by The New York Times on Wednesday. She said the volume of coverage could inadvertently make more people think they should pay attention to the issue and divert attention from more immediate health threats, such as Covid-19 and monkeypox.
“Once it has that certain degree of volume or attention, basically you are making this more a real thing than it truly is,” Professor Yang said.
The F.D.A. alert was unlikely to reach adolescents considering this behavior and was “clearly” written more as a warning to parents, said Corey Hannah Basch, a professor of public health at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J.
“The F.D.A. took a certain step to raise awareness, but has it gone too far to be helpful at this point?” Professor Basch said. “Most likely because it’s just brought many people to think about something they were not thinking about before.”
It was unclear how many more people had tried it because of the recent attention. On Twitter, most of the images being shared in recent days were taken from the small number of videos recorded years ago. On TikTok, searches for #nyquilchicken, before the app limited access to that content, revealed mostly people newly reacting to the same years-old videos.
The F.D.A. did not immediately respond to questions about what prompted the warning or whether it had received reports of people falling ill from the practice.
On some of the most popular reaction videos, TikTok appended a warning: “Participating in this activity could result in you or others getting hurt.”
“Content that promotes dangerous behavior has no place on TikTok,” a TikTok representative said in an email. “This is not trending on our platform, but we will remove content if found and strongly discourage anyone from engaging in behavior that may be harmful to themselves or others.”
In a grim precedent, some people really did eat laundry detergent packets in 2018 after a similar “challenge” based on Tide pods took off. And the F.D.A. cited a “Benadryl challenge” from 2020 that reportedly caused at least one teenager’s death.
But no, despite news reports every year, people aren’t putting razor blades or THC in Halloween candy.