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Jack Smith

Consumers are feeling boxed in by packagers who don't seem to want to put a lid on complaints

March 02, 1987|Jack Smith

From my mail, I find that I am not alone in my frustration with opening packages.

Modern packaging zealots seem to be making them more nearly impregnable all the time, but the problem is not new.

Dr. William Goldsmith notes that the subject was dealt with by Robert Benchley half a century ago.

He writes: "James Thurber once wrote that a fear many humorists have is that a piece they have been working on for several days was done better and quicker by Benchley in 1925."

I know the feeling.

"Although you refer to our difficulties with packaging as a modern problem, I enclose a piece by Benchley, which was written about 50 years ago, in which he describes the same kind of difficulties.

"As a psychiatrist, I can't help wondering whether you might have read the piece at one time and your own unconscious was at work when you did this column. . . ."

Maybe so. Benchley was certainly among my heroes. I have no doubt that over the years I have trampled many of his gardens. Benchley saw the whole world as frustrating and absurd, and anyone who sees it the same way dare not write anything at all if he worries that Benchley might have done it first and better.

Who knows? Maybe some day I'll try my hand at "The Social Life of the Newt."

Benchley complained: "There used to be an advertisement which read: 'We couldn't improve the product, so we improved the wrapper.' That's fine, provided you do improve the wrapper. But there is such a thing as improving the wrapper so that nobody can get at the product. It may be a perfectly dandy wrapper, airtight, watertight and germ-proof, but if the buyer has to send it to a garage to get it off, something is wrong somewhere. . . ."

Benchley's particular nemesis was a roll of mints.

"Your column on packaging," writes Michele Miller Regal of Idyllwild, "reminds me of the only time I ever felt affinity with Richard Nixon. It was when I read that in struggling to remove the top from a child-proof aspirin bottle he finally attacked the top with his teeth. I don't know whether this worked or not."

One indeed can empathize with the beleaguered President, needing aspirin as he must have, only to be frustrated by one of those really unopenable aspirin bottles.

I have failed to open them even with a large pair of pliers. It is all very well to make them child-proof, but it seems to me that only a child, with his superior curiosity and determination, could possibly open one.

Ruth Merriam Spaeth of Redlands says my word fiendish is not right for packages that can be opened with knife and hammer. "Have you ever tried to open the prescription vial that says, impressed on its top, 'Press down while turning'? That is the ultimate of fiendish. "

"From time to time," writes Victor Rosen, "I've found cans of oysters, clams, fish, or pate with a key-opener attached (as was standard in our youth), but with no tab on the end of the can to which you could attach the key and roll it open, still requiring you to struggle with a can opener. Do some manufacturers do that to tease us?"

Clem Clark of Santa Monica is particularly frustrated by the cardboard box that cocoa is packaged in.

"You never know how much cocoa is left; and you'd better have a metal implement such as a spoon handle or a screwdriver available to open it.

"The inventor of this package knew he had it made probably a hundred years ago. Nothing has had to be done to it like 'new, improved tamper-proof.' If you don't have a sturdy tool handy, you're not going to open it except by stomping on it.

"These companies could put cocoa in a glass jar like instant coffee, but then any adult male could open it and also see how much is left."

Marge McGuire of Anaheim Hills undertook to hang some wallpaper in her house, a trying job in the best of circumstances, and her frustration began as soon as the directions fell out of the pre-paste package.

"Can you believe this tiny print?" she asks. "One would need Superman's vision to read it."

She encloses an instruction sheet of about 4x6 inches, on which the instructions are listed in three languages. They are unreadable. I could bring them up to legible size only with the magnifying glass that came with my condensed Oxford English Dictionary, and then just barely.

Mike Kilgore of Mar Vista expressed his frustration with his own version of Murphy's Law: "The most difficult way to open any package is to follow the opening instructions printed on that package."

Graham D. Pattinson of Pasadena is especially irritated by those small packages of hardware containing small screws in a plastic bulb on cardboard.

"This system sometimes defies even the contents of one's tool box. You try to tear off the cardboard backing, which stratifies, leaving a layer or two stuck to the plastic, except where the screws are located. The screws then escape, promptly disappearing under the furniture.

"After you have finally uncovered the hardware, you realize the peeled off backing has to be retrieved from the waste basket since it contains the installation instructions. . . ."

He asks why packagers can't use the little red zip strips used to open cigarettes. Too easy. It would put the packaging industry out of business.

Don't get me onto those pull-up beverage openers.

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