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More packaging

GAYS MILLS - Last week’s column was about packaging, mostly about shipping things in cardboard. But that didn’t really cover the whole subject. How about the consumer-level packaging of darn near everything you buy? You know, those bombproof, hard plastic cocoons that seal and protect so many things at the store?

Who among us hasn’t been frustrated and maybe even wounded trying to get at what we’ve bought? I’m sure that manufacturers and retailers have a reason for overdoing the packaging. Maybe it’s to cut down on shoplifting that would make sense. It often takes a tool or two and some time to open modern packaging. Even with tools some packages are difficult. You may feel like a unsuspecting participant  on Candid Camera (now there was a show) wrassling with the difficult wrappings.

I recently bought a package of three toothbrushes. It took a razor utility knife and a pair of pliers to free them from a package that looked fit, as it was, to go on a moon launch. True, I was confident that the brushes hadn’t been contaminated since they were made, but it still seemed like overkill. I hope all the plastic involved in packaging, or at least a big share of it, gets recycled somehow, rather than winding up in a landfill.

I think a lot of this super packaging, at least with medications, started with the Tylenol Scare, also known as the Tylenol Murders back in 1982. For those of you who don’t remember that turning point in retail history, seven people died in the Chicago area after using Tylenol that had been tampered with, laced with potassium cyanide, a deadly poison. Apparently the culprit bought some Tylenol, took it home and poisoned it and then went back and switched bottles on the shelf. They never caught the sorry person who perpetrated that crime. 

The event caused big changes in the over-the-counter medication business. Johnson and Johnson, Tylenol’s manufacturer, acted swiftly, and expensively, pulling 31 million bottles of product off the shelves, nationwide, at a cost of over $100 million. Congress soon enacted strict consumer protection laws on package tampering. Next time you struggle with opening a childproof pill bottle and removing those pesky peel off “induction seals” under the cap think about the pharmaceutical industry that is just trying to protect you. Also, medications now more commonly come in caplet form rather than easy-to-tamper with capsules.

For a marketing class I took in college, we were asked to go to a supermarket and make some observations about packaging. It was eye opening, even back in 1965.  Some of the takeaways from that experience: with some brands of toothpaste, the smallest size available was ‘large;’ the largest size of one brand of catsup was ‘Tribe;’ many products were described as ‘homemade,’ which is not likely if offered by a big food company; many of the bags of chips and cereal were way too large for their contents, some only half-full. Those packages usually said: ‘some settling may occur during shipment,’ or words to that effect. 

Packaging affects us all. Good luck opening your Christmas packages.