Saturday, October 16, 2010

Q-tip Morality

Some products are purportedly made for one purpose but most often used for another. One example that crosses the line of legality in the United States, is rolling papers. Probably some of the Zig-Zags sold at the local convenience store are used to hand roll tobacco cigarettes, but I suspect the overwhelming majority end up as joints.

A far more common domestic example of a product sold with a wink is the Q-tip. This great little tool was reportedly invented in 1923 by Leo Gerstenzang when he witnessed his wife attaching cotton to a toothpick to clean their infant child. The product is now manufactured by Unilever, and a complete history of the Q-tip can be found on their website. Imitators abound. The box in my bathroom is a Stop & Shop brand knock-off. 

The Q-tip moral question is: Does the product warning really cover it? Does Unilever really believe that their product is only being used outside the ear canal? I found this photo of the Unilever warning on the web, and while it seems very direct, I suspect the manufacturer knows full well that the great majority of Q-tips are used to clean wax out of people’s ear canals. Indeed, the product is perfectly constructed for this purpose. The cotton is very securely attached and the thickness of the swab is ideal for spinning in an ear canal to get that pesky yellow gunk out of your head. It works beautifully. 

Of course the manufacturer wants to be protected from lawsuits, but does this really absolve them of responsibility? It is unlikely anyone would bring a suit about a product that, by now, has such a long and honored history, but I suspect a jury would be quick to see that a large portion of the profits gained from Q-tips come from the “misuse” of the product. Furthermore, few people would be convinced that Unilever is unaware of this fact.

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