Kids, Don't Try This at Home
By Stephen Advokat
Duh-isms. They're everywhere. Pick up just about any
household product, and you'll find warnings, advisories or instructions that
explain the obvious.
Read the notice on your hair dryer: "Do not place where
dryer can fall or be pulled into tub, toilet or sink. Do not use near or place
in water. If dryer falls into water, do not reach into water." And a personal
favorite, "Do not use while bathing."
"Honey, I'm taking a bath. Say, would you toss me the hair
Then there's the Kenner toy company's "Batman Returns"
costume, which includes the warning "CAUTION-FOR PLAY ONLY: Cape does not
enable user to fly."
The back of Dow Disinfectant Bathroom Cleaner, with
scrubbing bubbles, states, "Hazards to Humans: Do not spray in face or eyes."
Let's see, this soap isn't doing the trick this morning. I think I'll wash with
the bathroom disinfectant.
The label on Gillette's "Dry Idea" deodorant instructs,
"Apply to underarms only." And all this time I was rubbing the bottle behind my
ears and on the nape of my neck.
Does Ford really need to tell us, in its Escort manual, "To
open and close the side windows, turn the hand crank?" If this is new
information for you, maybe you're not ready to drive down streets I'll be
At first, it appears we're either getting dumb and dumber,
or manufacturers are talking down to us. But company representatives, lawyers
and other experts say neither is true. Creeping Duh-ism is a byproduct of an
increasingly litigious society and manufacturers' obsession with making sure
consumers know how to use their goods.
"You'd be surprised how many consumers misuse products,"
says one executive at a hair-care-products company. "We have a 'shampoo for dry
hair.' Instead of assuming it was for dry hair, one consumer who called thought
it would give her dry hair."
Gillette spokeswoman Michele Szynal cites her company's
razor that comes with a protective overcap. "We've gotten letters from people
saying the razor isn't working. We call them and ask, 'Have you taken the
overcap off?' They say, 'Oh.'"
"Litigation is often a primary consideration," says Paul
Frantz, a "human factors engineer" in Ann Arbor who helps manufacturers write
warning labels. But even he says that frivolous warning can undermine the
credibility of warnings in general and reduce the likelihood that people will
comply with the ones they truly need. And if we don't pay attention to them,
the warnings can't be doing much to prevent accidents. And if they aren't
preventing accidents, what good are they?
Well, okay, but do we really need to be told that Vaseline
Intensive Care hand lotion is "for external use only?" Is anybody spreading his
stuff over their food?
And what about return envelopes that say "Please Place Stamp
Here" in the upper right-hand corner? You mean I don't put the stamp on the
inside of the envelope?
It's silly. And I'm going to write to these companies and
tell them-just as soon as I figure out how to get the top off this darn