Warning: Beware of idiot warning labels

May 30, 2000|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

SO HERE'S the question: How stupid are you?

Let's say on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the average supermodel. How stupid do you figure?

Yes, I know I'm being awfully rude. It's just that lately I find myself deeply annoyed at the way your feeble-mindedness -- and more importantly, mine -- are considered a foregone conclusion by the people who make and market the stuff we buy.

I refer you to the fine print of an automotive ad I saw the other day on television. Doesn't matter which one, because they're all the same. The computer-enhanced image shows the car performing some can't-be-done impossibility -- driving up a wall, let's say -- and the text at the bottom invariably admonishes: "Professional driver on closed course. Please do not attempt."

Whew. Glad they told me. Otherwise, I might have tried to drive my minivan to the observation deck at the Empire State Building.

I wrote a column about cautions like this a couple of years ago. Idiot warnings, I called them, as in, those warnings that would insult Homer Simpson's intelligence, much less the intelligence of a couple of smart cookies like you and me. It wasn't a car ad that set me off that time, but a flimsy toy hardhat whose makers found it necessary to tell buyers that it provided no protection against head injury.

My rant resonated with readers, many of whom sent in idiot warnings of their own. Like a bread-pudding container that says, "Product will be hot after heating." Or the iron that cautions "Do not iron clothes on body." Or a chain saw that admonishes, "Do not attempt to stop chain with your hands."

Wait, there's more. How about a windshield sun shade that says, "Don't operate vehicle with shade in place?" The Christmas lights that say, "For indoor or outdoor use only." The sleep aid that says, "Warning: May cause drowsiness." Or my personal favorite, the Superman costume that wants you to know, "This will not enable wearer to fly."

One imagines some guy noticing that warning as he perches on the roof, the "S" on his chest, his fists thrust out before him. "Darn," he says.

Don't get me wrong. I understand why people who make stuff find it necessary to insult the intelligence of those who buy it. In these litigious days, it's not inconceivable that a corporation might wind up paying a multimillion-dollar judgment to, say, some doofus who didn't realize that a sleep aid might make you sleepy. So corporate America covers its hindquarters by making the world safe for stupidity.

But it occurs to me that in the process, corporate America also does profound damage to the human species.

Follow me on this. Remember what you learned in biology about Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection? It says, in essence, that the strong survive. Not only that, but they pass their strength down the genetic line.

The problem is that now, thanks to idiot warnings, the weak survive, too, and pass their weakness down as well. I mean, did anyone stop to think that maybe the guy who put on the Superman suit and went up to the roof was actually meant to leap off? Then he reads that warning and instead of liquefying himself against the pavement, he survives. To procreate.

Everywhere you look, you see the results. Used to be you could more or less avoid intellectual mediocrity by avoiding the places people afflicted with it tend to gather. Like Congress. But now, is it just me, or is stupidity spreading? That would certainly explain a few things. Like the Reform Party, "Who Wants To Marry a Multi-Millionnaire?" and Bobby Brown.

Stupidity, it seems obvious to me, is spreading like kudzu. In the face of this national emergency, I offer two proposals. First, that we do away, now and forever, with idiot warnings. Second, that the federal government supply every man, woman and child in this country ... a Superman suit.

I know it sounds harsh, but it's the only way.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him via e-mail at leonardpitts@mindspring.com or by calling toll-free at 1-800-457-3881.

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