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A laugh for the new year

The American labels don’t just appear to cater to the stupid but also to people who have abilities the rest of us cannot even conceive of, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Jan 06, 2008 03:51 IST

Georges Clemenceau, France’s famous World War I prime minister, once said of America that it was the only country in the world to have progressed from barbarism to decadence without experiencing the intervening stage of civilisation. Perhaps he had American warning labels in mind. After reading about the US Wacky Warning Label Contest, now in its 11th year, I decided to research the subject. What I discovered is both stupefying and hilarious. The Americans must be very special people indeed!

A label on a tractor reading “Danger: Avoid Death” was adjudged this year’s winner. Second prize went to another on a T-shirt that warns: “Do not iron while wearing shirt”. A few years earlier the winner was a label on a baby stroller which proclaimed: “Remove child before folding.”

The most striking conclusion about American labels is that they assume their countrymen are fools. Or how else do you interpret this caution on a bottle of drain cleaner: “If you do not understand, or cannot read, all directions, cautions and warnings, do not use this product”? It’s not by any means unique. Laser printer cartridges often state “Do not eat toner”; TV remote controls warn “Not dish washer safe”; a toilet cleaning brush handle mentions “Do not use orally”, whilst a Halloween Batman costume advises “This cape does not give the wearer the ability to fly”. Even hair colourings feel the need to add “Do not use as an ice cream topping.”

Often the labels don’t just appear to cater to the stupid or the utterly ignorant but perhaps also people who have abilities the rest of us cannot even conceive of. Otherwise why would a mattress warn “Do not attempt to swallow”? Or earplug packages advise: “These ear plugs are non-toxic but may interfere with breathing if caught in windpipe”? Perhaps Americans are zombies because hairdryers sold by Sears state “Do not use while sleeping”. Or maybe they are amphibious because some cars advise “Do not drive in ocean”?

Or it’s possible they’re all sardars, and I write that with apologies to my 20 million brethren, Mr Badal and the SGPC. In my schooldays — long before 1984 — sardar jokes were the staple of school boy humour. What does a sardar milk bottle say at the bottom, we would ask? ‘Open other end’ was the answer. It may have been a dreadful PJ but, believe it or not, it appears to be true of America. My research on the net reveals that some coke bottles in the US of A declare at the bottom ‘Do not open here’, muffins at a 7-11 store advise “Remove wrapper, open mouth, insert muffin, eat”, whilst espresso kettles helpfully advise “This appliance is switched on by setting the on/off switch to the ‘on’ position”. But surely the winner is this label on a microwave oven: “Do not use for drying pets”.

So does all of this mean Americans are a breed apart? Are they different or, at least, unique? Otherwise how do you explain these wacky labels? In fact the truth is that Americans are no different to you and I, though a lot richer and occasionally not as cultured. It’s their legal system — or their lawyers — that are to blame. Predatory legal-eagles file suits to claim damages for the most frivolous or far-fetched of reasons, thus forcing manufacturers to cover themselves by ensuring their products carry warnings advising against any conceivable misuse. And believe me, I’m not exaggerating. You can even find bath tubs in New York which solemnly advise “Do not throw the baby away with the water”!

But something else is also equally true. It’s Americans themselves who have drawn the world’s attention to these wacky labels and organised the wacky label contest. There’s even a book on the subject. It’s called The 101 Stupidest, Silliest and Wackiest Warning Labels Ever. So even in their lawyer-induced idiocy they retain their sense of humour. Frankly, that forgives a lot.

Happy New Year!