Products packing a punch have much to answer for

Last week saw the end of tobacco advertising in the UK, but what of regulation on marketing the many other products that injure consumers? asks Iain Murray

So that’s it, then. All those creative brains behind the pageant of tobacco ads that ingeniously kept one step ahead of the regulators can lay down their pens, put aside their sketchpads, and leave their muse to slumber untroubled. The weed is to be promoted no more.

You would have to be a very hard-bitten cynic to deny the faint possibility that in some quarters of Adland the outlawing of tobacco was greeted with an inaudible sigh of relief. No more troubled consciences, no more explaining about brand switching, no more white lies at dinner parties about where the money for the new Merc came from.

But don’t think your troubles are over. Yes, you, the creative in the corner innocently breaking sweat over the elusive mot juste that will hoist the designer wellington boot above its competitors and bring the punters piling in. And you, too, the pony-tailed, fin-de-siècle throwback working on the definitive birdbath commercial. Would either of you sleep so well if you knew the havoc you wrought?

Behind the vision of a happy, prosperous land of smiling children and contented consumers lies a terrible story of disappointment, pain and carnage. Every year, 60,000 people – ordinary, innocent Britons making the most of life’s tearstained journey – injure themselves opening “difficult packaging”. Corned beef cans alone account for 9,000 cuts requiring hospital treatment.

And why do glass bottles come without a health warning? They cause cuts to the hands when they break while being opened, injure feet when they are dropped, and harm teeth when people try to grip a bottle while opening it.

More than 2,000 people suffer wrist strain each year as they try to prise the lids off jam jars. Others, beside themselves with frustration, smash the glass and pay the price in bloodied flesh.

Sprays and aerosols result in 1,600 injuries a year as people accidentally spray the contents in their eyes in a vain effort to open the product and release its goodness.

I could tell of cuts and bruises, of injured bones, of sprains and even of severed fingers caused by consumers, their temples throbbing with rage, trying to cut a can in half with a knife. All this misery caused by packaging and, according to the Department of Guesswork, at a cost of £12m a year to the NHS.

The terrible truth of pain-wracked Britain was revealed by researchers at Nottingham University, who were asked by the Department of Trade and Industry to investigate the dangers of badly designed packaging. Beverley Norris, of the university’s Occupational Ergonomics Department, said: “What we found was a lack of design when it comes to consumers opening items.”

It is not clear whether the design fault is in the consumers or the packaging. If we had stronger teeth, more resilient toes, or limbs of a greater prehensile quality we would perhaps be better equipped to gain entry into a jar of strawberry conserve without paramedical aftercare. But we cannot wait for evolution to equip us for the aerosol hairspray. It could take ages. In the meantime, says Miss Norris, “Our main finding is that packaging is easier to open when there is a larger surface area for grasping.”

I’m not so sure. Bigger bottles could mean bigger gashes. Bigger corned beef cans could mean bigger jemmies and stronger hydraulic wrenches.

Packaging is only part of the story. Not all the line of bruised, bandaged, footsore and shell-shocked consumers you see straggling back from the front line were hurt by bottles and cans. Many were injured by ordnance such as wellington boots, loofahs, tea cosies, and paper pages.

The DTI, ever watchful, ever vigilant in the war against household objects, runs a Home and Leisure Accident Surveillance System. A report by the unit showed that printed publications injured far more people than chainsaws – 4,371 compared to 1,207 – while tea cosy injuries almost doubled in 1999, up from 20 in the previous year to 37. Wellington boots caused 5,615 injuries and sponges and loofahs 966.

The report, compiled by logging the accidents reported by people admitted to a sample group of hospitals and then extrapolating estimates for the whole country, found that the number of people going to hospital after a trouser accident was high. In 1999, trousers caused 5,945 accidents, 808 more than in 1998.

Mercifully, the trend was partly offset by a fall in injuries inflicted by armchairs, down from 18,690 to 16,662. Nevertheless, said New Scientist, armchair injuries “leave little room for complacency”. The magazine added that injuries inflicted by vegetables “remain unacceptably high” at 13,132. Hospital admissions caused by socks and tights rose from 9,843 to 10,773, while birdbath accidents almost trebled to 311.

This is a message marketers must heed. They cannot afford to be complacent about armchairs. Nor can they turn a blind eye to trouser-related contusions. If there were a ban on the advertising of products injurious to health (wellington boots, tea cosies and tights stand in a particularly damning light), fewer people would take them up, and the nation’s health would benefit.

Sadly, we do not have figures on how many people cut themselves turning the pages of the Home and Leisure Accident Surveillance System Report.

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