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Food & Drink

How Pedialyte Became the Go-To Hangover Cure for Adults

Zach Harper couldn’t stop puking. It was last spring, and Harper, who’s an NBA writer for FanRag Sports, was in the Bay Area covering the 2017 NBA Finals, prepping to do a podcast on the series. But, he found himself at the mercy of his stomach. He might’ve been hungover, he might’ve had food poisoning -- he wasn’t entirely sure. He’d had some vodka sodas the night before, and now he couldn’t keep down water and saltines.

Wake up, throw up, pass out. That was Harper’s routine until about 2pm the next day when he remembered a possible solution to his misery: Pedialyte. His sister swore by it for hangovers, and a few months earlier in April, when he was in New Orleans covering the city’s pro basketball team, he’d joked about the seemingly absurd use of the popular children’s drink on his podcast, Talk Hoops, as a hangover aide. It was a Hail Mary attempt, but his best option at that point. So he called up Postmates to deliver him two bottles of Mixed Fruit Pedialyte.

The first half bottle went down rough, but the more he drank it, the better he felt. By 7pm, he’d crushed the two bottles (more than is recommended per the company’s instructions), and had a revelation. “All of a sudden I felt like a human again,” he says. “[It wasn’t just], 'Oh, I might be able to do the show, but I might be able to be OK at this point.'”

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Harper and a growing number of adults are turning their nauseous, aching, hungover bodies towards the beloved kids’ drink, which is intended to help sick and/or dehydrated children replenish vital fluids and minerals that are lost, to make the morning after more bearable. Like most things in the internet era, it’s a lifestyle hack borne of grassroots, word-of-mouth energy on social media but also a big brand’s willingness to loosen up its formerly strict image. While its actual efficacy in stopping a hangover dead in its tracks is questionable, everyone from Coachella-going average Joe’s to celebrities are evangelizing the wonders of the electrolyte-fueled beverage, helping usher the brand and its parent company, Abbott Laboratories, into the adult market.

When discussing Pedialyte’s renaissance with adults, it’s important to remember three things: First, per FDA guidelines, there’s no such thing as a true hangover cure, and because of that rule Abbott cannot market Pedialyte as such -- it’s an “advanced rehydration solution,” per Abbott director of brand marketing Ryan Frank. Second, Pedialyte occupies a perfect middle ground between water and sports drinks, striking a delicate balance between electrolytes and sugar content (sports drinks like Gatorade and Powerade tend to be overtly sugary) and flavor. And third, nothing solves a hangover like time. “I think as far as using Pedialyte, hydrating helps hangovers,” Dr. Alexis Halpern, emergency medicine physician at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, says. “Eating helps, too, but sleep is the best thing. It’s just hard to do sometimes.”

"All of a sudden, I felt like a human again."

Obviously, these distinctions aren’t important to Pedialyte-proselytizing 20- and 30-somethings. What matters is their experience, usually grokked via a friend’s advice and personal anecdotes: They drink Pedialyte when hungover and then feel better. Like most supposed hangover “cures,” it’s not much deeper than being something that feels like it quickly relieves the symptoms of a hangover; however, unlike fringe remedies, Pedialyte has a certain cachet that gives it credence. As Joe Pinsker of The Atlanticsuccinctly put it, the drink has “medicinal sheen -- if it can help the most fragile of dehydrated babies, generous amounts of it must be able to help a hardy, full-grown human.”

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After putting out a call on social media to ask friends their thoughts on Pedialyte, my childhood friend Donnie Elsass summed up the drink’s power this way, recounting how it helped him recently recover from Thursday-night partying for an NHL playoff game. “I literally slammed the whole bottle the next day before 10am, had some coffee, and felt amazing,” he says. “It’s been relatively recently that I’ve been turned onto it as a hangover cure, but because of that one instance I’m like, I’m going to do this every time I drink now.

The brand’s sales have reflected this newfound use. From 2012 to 2015, Nielsen Homescan found that Pedialyte’s sales grew 22% to $102 million. This growth finally forced Abbott’s hand to push towards marketing to grown-ups in 2015. “Today, almost half of our Pedialyte business [is households without kids],” Frank says in an email. Over the past year alone, Google searches for “Pedialyte and hangovers” surged 3,600%.

Of course, with any “It” thing, there’s a celebrity element. Several years ago both Pharrell Williams and Miley Cyrus were purported to be converts, and quickly scrolling Twitter yields handfuls of verified career partiers touting Pedialyte’s re-hydrating prowess. People like Michael Kelly of House of Cards fame and musicians like Travis Barker have weighed in.

All of this influence definitely helps, but Pedialyte wouldn’t also be a beverage acceptable for adults without lots of earned media. Both Harper and Elsass have personally put friends on to drinking it, but it’s the online culture surrounding it that gives friends’ recommendations weight. “A friend of mine from high school will always Snapchat shots of Pedialyte before he goes out,” Elsass says. “And I’ll Snapchat pics of my Pedialyte bottle, too, like, Always gotta be prepared, and then I’ll have three or four people be like ‘does that really work?’ And I’m like, 'Yeah, it’s legit.'”

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In Harper’s case, his prodigious Twitter and online presence allows him to evangelize about Pedialyte’s powers to a wide audience. Fans will tweet at his podcast and explain that they, too, subscribe to Pedialyte the morning after drinking, and Harper’s frequent mentions of the brand on the platform have even resulted in a particularly special gift of next-level Pedialyte from the company (although, Harper’s reluctant to say that he was sent it specifically because of his online following). “They sent me this ‘Pedialyte Black Label’-esque box,” he says. “There were lights in it, and it contained green and light-blue bottles, a shirt that said ‘Socialyte,’ and, like, because your head’s supposed to still hurt, a pair of sunglasses."

The brand notices the online conversation. “We continue to see more consumers, athletes, and celebrities using Pedialyte as their go-to rehydration solution and sharing its effectiveness,” Frank says in an email. “It’s always fun to see the brand referred to as ‘MVP’ or ‘Game Changer’ on social media, because it amplifies that if you know, you know.”

Pedialyte maintains a fairly active Twitter account that plays along with users who credit the drink with helping them surviving their hangovers. Its presence maintains the grassroots feedback loop of indoctrinated hungover Pedialyte drinkers. “Whenever I tweet at them, they seem to embrace the, Yeah, you feel like crap today! Drink a Pedialyte!” Harper says. “It seems with Pedialyte there’s a legitimate understanding of: We can own the social space in a very authentic way and it’s not going to hurt us with the rest of our [more traditional adult] customers because 1) they’ll probably never see it and 2) they’d probably like to try it as well if they, you know, send their kids to the grandparents and have a wild weekend.”

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Business Insider retail reporter Kate Taylor says Pedialyte’s bifurcated audience is extremely unique, and while Gatorade or Powerade might be its closest competition, its marketing is probably more closely related to shoot-from-the-hip food brands like Wendy’s or Denny’s. Case in point: Taylor’s first run-in with Pedialyte as a drink for adults came at a New York City bar where she found a bucket filled with coupons for the drink (and Pedialyte's name misspelled, natch).

“It’s very obvious that they just have parallel marketing campaigns running against each other,” Taylor says. “There’s one where they’re going after parents and then another that’s much more online and at bars. I mean, usually the split [between markets] is not as extreme as literal children and people who are hungover. That’s about as wildly different between two audiences as you can get.”

So what’s next? According to Abbott, the brand will continue to expand into the adult market, focusing its energy on everywhere “from pharmacies to music festivals.” Pedialyte seems to have ditched the cold feet it might’ve had in pivoting its brand from just focusing on pediatric needs to humans of all ages who need "rehydration." Who knows, maybe next year it'll even be an official sponsor of Coachella.

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Ryan Joseph is a freelance writer and Ohio native who thinks your Cincinnati chili hot take is trash.