Warning: Faulty Warning Ahead

Once upon a time, thousands of years ago, there were three causes of death: falling off cliffs, getting eaten by wild animals, and starvation.  Very few people died of anything else, largely because nobody lived long enough to get (for example) cancer.

With the invention of, respectively, guard rails, zoos, and fast food, people now live long enough to require new classes of stuff that will kill you.  And, since people tend to be much more sensitive about being killed than they used to (mostly because of the paperwork involved, I think), mankind has evolved a powerful defense mechanism against danger: the warning.

I became sensitized to the power of warnings after I had my stroke.  As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, much of the dialogue between me and the medical community during my recovery consisted of them warning me to 1) be careful and b) don’t fall.  (Disclaimer: I was giving off a pretty strong “suicidal 92-year old daredevil” vibe, so it was understandable).

Since that time, I’ve become sensitized to the power and limitations of warnings.  We live in a warning-rich environment, and while in theory this makes us safer, the sheer volume of warnings can become counter-productive, because so many warnings are poorly conceived and poorly implemented.

Some warnings are just stupid.  “Caution: coffee is hot” is a feature, not a bug.

Some warnings are conditionally stupid when used out of context.  “Caution: may contain peanuts” is a good warning to put on the door to Dairy Queen.  It’s less helpful on a jar of peanut butter.  Likewise, “May cause drowsiness” makes sense on an antihistamine.  Putting the same warning on Sominex is redundant, and could be shortened to “Caution: may work as advertised”.  That would actually be helpful, as few products do.

Some are helpful, but misplaced.  Any product which causes drowsiness contains the following warning: “Avoid operating heavy machinery while using this product.”  This is good advice, but aside from driving, the audience that operates heavy machinery is a small one.  Almost as small as the tiny print in the instructions.  A much more efficient warning would be to put a sign in large, friendly letters on all heavy machinery saying, “Caution: do not operate if you are drowsy.”  This would free up space on labels that could be used to either increase the font size, or add a few more side effects.  (Warning: may cause lycanthropy.)

My favorite warnings are the ones which will never be followed.  Recently, I’ve found two similar but unrelated warnings that are absolutely pointless.

I had a cold a while back, and was taking a decongestant.  The tiny print on the back of the package said this:

“Warning: contains acetaminophen.  If you consume three or more alcoholic drinks every day, please consult your physician before using.  Acetaminophen can cause liver damage.”

Now this may very well be true.  But A) if you’re consuming that much alcohol, acetaminophen is not your major risk factor for liver damage; and 2) nobody is going to be asking the doctor, “Hey, doc, the half dozen rum-and-cokes I have with lunch keep giving me headaches.  Is it OK for my liver to take Tylenol?”

In the same vein, there is a warning that’s even less useful.  On TV, they occasionally advertise certain products which are to be used “when the moment is right”.  One of the quick-voice (the audio equivalent of small print) warnings for timing-related products like this is as follows:

“Ask your doctor if you are healthy enough for sexual activity.”

This is the least-followed advice in human history.  No human male is ever going to pose this question to their doctor.  The reasoning is simple.  There are only two possible answers:

– the answer we want and are going to do anyway

– some sort of white noise that men cannot hear, which will be interpreted as the answer we want and are going to do anyway

As a result, it is simply more efficient (men are all about efficiency) to not waste the doctor’s time and skip this question.  This happens approximately 100% of the time.

Women, if you don’t believe this, imagine if all women’s clothing came with this label:

“Before purchasing, ask your husband if this product is going to make you look fat.”

(Warning: the statement above may be considered under some circumstances to be sexist.  Sexism may cause hurt feelings. If you have feelings, please consult your doctor before reading this post.)

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