WASHINGTON, DC—Decrying needlessly confusing directions for the use and assembly of countless products, citizens across the nation are organizing advocacy groups to demand that American manufacturers simplify the instructions they place on packaging.
"I'm a busy father of three," said Richard Graham of Chester, VA. "I don't have time to wade through all those words and confusing pictures on the box of flavored instant-oatmeal packets. Why can't I just get the bowl of hot oatmeal without going through so much trouble?"
On behalf of dissatisfied consumers like Graham, the Washington-based activist group Citizens for Easier Instructions has delivered an ultimatum to corporations: Replace current directions with easier versions or face a consumer boycott.
"We demand that product manufacturers provide their customers with intuitive, easy-to-follow directions featuring larger pictures, color coding, shorter words, and no words at all where a letter, number or pictograph would suffice," CEI director Melanie Pruitt said Tuesday at a press conference kicking off the group's "Crusade For Clarity '99" campaign. "For too long, the people of America have stared blankly at monochromatic, densely printed lines of instructions on cans, bottles and boxes, straining to digest the elaborately worded directives. We say, 'no more.'"
Pruitt, who nets a six-figure salary as one of the country's top instruction-clarity advocates, then unveiled a large placard showing the multi-step instructions on a can of Chef Boyardee beef ravioli.
"The first instruction, 'Empty contents into saucepan,' is only the first problem with this mind-bogglingly byzantine label," Pruitt said. "No clue is offered on how to retrieve these 'contents' from the hard, silvery shell surrounding them. In fact, our research staff has determined that a tool not included with the can is necessary."
Moving further along the label, Pruitt noted additional directions which would pose comprehension problems for the average consumer: "'Stir occasionally until hot,' the label instructs. How often is 'occasionally'? If I only prepare ravioli 'occasionally,' should I not stir at all?"
Perhaps the label's most confusing factor, Pruitt said, was the existence of two separate series of instructions, depending on the heating device used.
"The already-baffling 'Stir occasionally until hot' is not even properly identified as the final instruction in the stove-top-specific set of instructions before the text flows right into the second set, making the cook think that the next step in the preparation process is 'Microwave,'" Pruitt said. "The second set of instructions is even more paradoxical, demanding such tasks as, 'Stir once during heating,' despite the fact that the food product is heated in a microwave which ceases to function if it is opened to get at the food."
To avoid a consumer boycott, Pruitt recommended that the maker of Chef Boyardee print the words, "Requires can opener, saucepan, stove and electrical power" on the front of every label in large letters, and present the instructions in the form of pictographs showing a gender-neutral stick figure traveling sequentially through all the steps of preparation, from opening the can to emptying the product into the saucepan, all through the cooking process, transferring the contents from the saucepan to a serving dish, and finally consuming the food using appropriate utensils.
"We believe the entire process can be rendered in as few as 22 pictographs, which could be large enough to be easily read if printed on the inside of the label," Pruitt said. "All that would be needed is an exterior instruction directing the preparer to remove the label and read the full, interior instruction set."
"Corporations that fail to respond to the changing needs of Americans will lose customers," she added. "We as a people no longer have the time or patience to read lines of text and struggle to decipher their meaning."
Manufacturer Procter & Gamble has already announced it will soon introduce new "EZ 2 Follow" instructions that will clearly spell out "even the simplest and most obvious of operations."
The redesigned Old Spice aftershave lotion bottle, company representative Albert Conrad said, will feature explicit instructions regarding where and how to apply the lotion, as well as warnings not to drink Old Spice or use it as a marinade in cooking.
Sheets included in other Procter & Gamble products will warn against eating Crisco straight from the can, squirting Vicks NyQuil into one's eyes, or re-using Tampax products.
Many other corporations have already made moves toward similar changes based on the overwhelming number of questions and complaints they receive at their 800 numbers every day.
"I used to answer 30 to 40 calls a day from people asking what 'Apply liberally' meant," said Carla Enway, an operator for Coppertone. "My job has been a lot easier since we changed the bottle to read, "Spread a whole bunch all over everything but your eyes and mouth."