Kids, Don't Try This at Home

By Stephen Advokat

Kids!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 dryer, please?"


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."

Kids!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 travelling.

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 pen.