The Humor in Product Warnings

Years ago, the cast of Saturday Night Live turned its sarcastic wit on the ridiculous warnings that some manufacturers put on their products.  The resulting SNL bit was a commercial for “Happy Fun Ball,” a simple rubber ball that was a “toy sensation that’s sweeping the nation.”  After a short clip showing kids playing with the ball, the rest of the commercial was a long series of warnings, each escalating in its degree of absurdity.  After starting with “Pregnant women, the elderly, and children under 10 should avoid prolonged exposure to Happy Fun Ball,” the warnings progressed to “”If Happy Fun Ball begins smoke, get away immediately.  Seek shelter and cover head.”  The last warning given is “Do not taunt Happy Fun Ball.”

Poking fun at warnings seems warranted when the manufacturer attempts to be overly inclusive, and lists warnings for every conceivable misuse or abuse of the product, regardless of how unlikely it would be that the warning could prevent an injury.  It is ridiculous to expect manufacturers to warn consumers about events that could never, ever be expected to occur.  And if the manufacturers include a long list of ridiculous warnings, important consumer information gets lost in the long laundry list of warnings.

Drug commercials are starting to mimic the Happy Fun Ball ad, with a long list of side effects for many drugs, each of which seems to be more severe than the malady that the drug is intended to treat.  With the long list of obscure side effects at the end of the commercial, most consumers simply stop listening (which is probably what the drug companies want).  But those who actually listen might be amazed that a single drug could have so many different adverse reactions.  Many drugs have over 100 side effects, and the voice-over at the end of every 30-second commercial seems intent on reading the name of every one.  Experts in the medical field have advised the manufacturers to avoid the urge to recite long lists of side effects, and instead find an effective way to actually communicate useful information to the consumer.

Other manufacturers have attempted to use humor in their warnings, but without the wit of SNL’s comedy team.  Zen Magnets manufactures and sells packets of small but powerful chrome-plated magnetized balls.  These magnets are used to mimic piercings of the tongue, lip, or cheek, by placing one ball inside the mouth that is attracted to the ball placed on the outside of the mouth.  Such use has led to several reports of unintentional swallowings, which can cause severe intestinal problems if two or more of the balls are swallowed and they pinch or trap the tissue in the intestinal walls.  After the Consumer Product Safety Commission was alerted of the injury reports and tried to force the company to include warnings, Zen Magnets inserted a small slip of paper in the packaging with the following message:

“Warning:  DO NOT SWALLOW MAGNETS.  How old do you have to be to play with these?  Dunno.  14 years old in the US for a strong magnetic toy, unless it’s not a toy, then no age limit, but they’re fun magnet spheres, aren’t they a toy?  Unless it’s a “science kit” then the government age recommendation is 8+.  But really, it’s whatever age at which a person stops swallowing non-foods.”

The CPSC was not amused, and brought a lawsuit against Zen Magnets to force a recall.  But the CPSC may have it wrong.  Zen Magnets’ warning may have actually been more effective than a dry, standard warning, because it at least tries to communicate the warning in a way that makes an impression with consumers.  The warning is not perfect, by any means, because it fails to communicate the unexpected consequences of swallowing these seemingly inert balls — infection, sepsis, and even death — but it might be more effective than a simple “do not swallow” and “not intended for children under the age of 14.”

For examples of unintended humor in warnings, visit



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