Deep pondering on labels


The label of a pure chocolate bar containing no peanuts or almonds nevertheless informs its allergy-prone consumers that the product was “manufactured on the same equipment that processes peanuts/almonds.” I had no idea that chocolate consumers could be that sensitive or that manufacturers could be so adverse to the risk of being sued.

On the other hand, after having watched 18 hours on DVD with no commercial interruptions of a highly addictive TV series that without the slightest of warnings broke away from the time-honored American tradition of happy endings, my wife, my daughters, and I felt like suing the producer for having wasted our time, aggravated by an emotional letdown. And therefore to label or not to label seems to be a very pertinent question for our times. 

For instance, when appointing individuals to some very sensitive government positions of authority there is a special need for a warning along the lines of “this idea was generated by the same mind or mindset that came up with such-and-such an idea.” Taking such an approach seems to be an ideal function of the confirmation hearings of Congress. It is ironic though that in this case it is exactly when they are ordered to follow their respective labels, Republican or Democrat, that we then need a label stating “Warning, following the labels precisely might also be dangerous.” 

Guaranteed—100% Artificial

Many years ago, on a Caribbean island, on a bottle which contained a greenish liquid of very dubious quality, I read “Guaranteed 100% Artificial.” I thought this slogan that so shamelessly capitalized on what was obviously negative by turning it into something positive was a real marketing masterpiece. That was before I started to analyze similar examples provided by our politicians. Since then it is but an example.

Remove all packaging and labels!

I just purchased a porcelain enameled casserole dish to use in the oven, and read on the label that before using it I should remove all packaging and labels. I understand the vendor’s concern with lawsuits from suing-for-a-buck entrepreneurs, but should they in that case not also worry about someone suing them for disrespectfully considering a consumer stupid, ex-ante, or for whatever this stupid consumer might cook, which, presumably, could be much more dangerous and addictive than some old burned labels? (A frozen pizza I just bought had a label instructing that it should be cooked heated before eating!)

Pure water

On the flight I was handed a small picnic-like bag which contained the modern substitute for the traditional on-board meal. I suppose this is aimed at cost reduction. The bag included a bottle of pure, natural water and a “globalized” menu made up of a Manhattan deli-sandwich, Dijon mustard, and Tortilla Chips.

The water is contained in a clear plastic bottle, good and very expensive, retail. Its label told me that the water originated, and is bottled, in France, vintage 2005, and can be consumed safely until July 27, year 2007. (What should one do in August of year 2007?) It also included a bar code, which evidently makes logistics easier, considering the fact that the water must be transported long distances from its source to the ultimate consumer.

On the backside of the bottle, another label gave me valuable information as to its “Nutritional Content” broken down into units per serving, which in this case was conveniently the same as the content of the bottle, that is, 11 fl. oz or 330 ml. The information was as follows: Calories = 0; Total Fat Content = 0 g. = 0% of the Daily Value (DV); Sodium = 0 mgs. = 0%; Carbohydrates = 0 g. = 0% of the Daily Value (DV); and Proteins = 0 g. = 0% of the Daily Value (DV). All was, as one should expect, from the ingredient “water,” although, curiously, no info at all was provided in respect to its purity.

While I drank the water, I asked myself, why do they cut back on flight attendants in order to give you this expensive water? Why do people scream bloody murder when nonrenewable gasoline hits two dollars a gallon and then willingly pay up to eighteen dollars a gallon for pure water without even being thirsty? I guess that’s life! 

Warning against warnings

We all know of the crying-wolf-too-often risks, but I also just heard an amazing new twist on it on C-Span. In a hearing about the frauds committed against elderly people, Denise Park from the National Institute of Aging, after explaining that the elderly were more prone to give credibility to anything sounding familiar than young people, told about an experiment that showed that the likelihood of a statement being considered true after having been declared false three times was, for older people, larger than for a statement that had been declared false only once. To me, the implication of this thesis—closely related in its significance to Goebbels’ odious theories—is that we need also to include in our warning labels something to the effect that “this warning should not be read too often, especially by those over fifty.”

Fair prices!

And while waiting in the line I see a “Fair Trade Certified” coffee that on its label promises that its purchase will improve the lives of coffee farmers by insuring they receive a guaranteed “fair price for their harvest”. I could not resist such an enticement and I bought a cup of it. It was great, and like any truly good coffee it made my mind wander. What does a fair price mean? That the coffee grower can afford to send his kids to school, afford good decent healthcare, and buy a car? Or that his kids will not go to bed starving. I hope he gets at least the last. Or does fair in this context mean that he is getting prices that are fairly similar to those quoted for coffee on the commodities exchanges without risking being taken to the cleaners by some savvy distributors? Who knows? I finish up my coffee with a lingering suspicion that perhaps a fair price might still not be enough. Would it not be better to certify “unfair prices” or, in perhaps more marketing digestible terms “fair price plus 100%”? Whatever, at the end of the day, if I were a farmer, I know that I would much rather get European farm prices than fair prices.