Remove Child Before Folding: The 101 Stupidest, Silliest and Wackiest Warning Labels Ever, by Bob Dorigo Jones, Warner Books, 106 pages, $10
No one would have predicted that in 1992 Stella Liebeck would transform American jurisprudence and American letters. She famously scalded herself badly while holding a cup of hot McDonald's coffee between her legs in a car. She eventually settled out of court for reportedly under $600,000, but not before she became the poster child for an endless string of often frivolous and misguided product-liability lawsuits that punish manufacturers for the stupidity of their customers.
While makers of shoddy goods should be punished to the full extent of the law, the bogus cases do little more than cost consumers billions of dollars a year. After all, the cost of the suits ultimately gets passed on to customers if they don't run companies out of business. On the upside, though, lawsuits such as Liebeck's have created an entire new genre of literature - the alternately insulting and incoherent warning label.
This new art form is on vivid display in the immensely entertaining (and more than a little disturbing) compilation of recent warning labels, "Remove Child Before Folding."
That titular advice comes courtesy of a baby stroller made by Century, but it's hardly exceptional in this collection. A household iron made by Rowenta Inc. warns users, "Never iron clothes while they are being worn." "Despite the obvious humor," writes Bob Dorigo Jones, "your basic sense of what's right and what's wrong may leave you struggling with whether to laugh or cry."
Jones runs M-LAW, a consumer group that has for the last decade run an annual "Wacky Warning Label Contest." It's likely that Jones, who stresses that M-LAW has "verified the authority of every label" in the book, could have stretched his collection to 1,001 labels with no fall-off in absurdity. Laser printer manufacturer Ricoh warns customers, "Do not eat toner" while a label for an abdominal-exercising machine wisely counsels, "Caution: Do not close your eyes while driving."
Designer Calvin Klein tells those who purchase his shirts to "Keep away from fire," while a "Thomas the Tank [Engine] birthday badge happily announces on the front that "I am 2." On the reverse it reads, "Caution: This is not to be used by children under 3 yrs. of age."
The makers of the Fantastik Fresh Brush for toilets deliver a less ambiguous, though no less urgent, message: "Do not use for personal hygiene." "What do you think the following 101 wacky warning labels will prompt your descendants to think about life in America during the 20th and 21st centuries?" asks Jones.
Of course, that begs the question of whether it's only today's warning labels that are keeping mankind from mass extinction. It seems likely that our grandchildren's children will be immensely grateful that the BernzOmatic propane torch tells purchasers to "Never use while sleeping" and that Verizon SuperPages Companion Directory cautions, "Not for use while operating a moving vehicle."
Or perhaps our descendants will meditate long and hard on the Zen-like mysteries in labels such as "Hot beverages are hot!" (Thanks, Stella) and "Not for use in water" (on an inflatable raft) and achieve a higher level of consciousness altogether, one in which basic common sense is again taken for granted.
Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of Reason. This review originally appeared in the Sunday, February 25, 2007 edition of The New York Post.