Questions Questions

Young children ask the best questions; why is the sky blue or the trees green, where does the sun go at night or who makes the rainbow? With a modicum of science you can explain these various phenomena, and if you’re good enough this may suffice until they are in school and learning. Those of a religious persuasion may well say that’s the way Allah/God/Shiva/Yahweh made it. You pays your money you take your choice. Either way the question is deflected till a later date.

But as adults we stop asking these kinds of questions. Why don’t we ask the naive questions that force us to look at the world through a child’s eyes?  As adults we accept that things are as they are and don’t wonder why. We are passive; we don’t ask why or how come. As adults we shrug our shoulders and say “that’s just the way things are” or “it’s always been like that”.

In a supermarket recently I heard a cherubic child, he looked about 3 maybe 4, ask his mother, “Why are tins round?”  And this led me to ask myself the same question.  A quick search on the net and the answer becomes clear. There are lots of reasons for cylindrical as opposed to any other shape of can.

A few follow;

Round is the configuration which allows hundreds of thousands of cans to travel along an assembly line that has many twists and turns without jamming. (Seems reasonable)

Round is easier to manufacture in the canning factory, involving sheet metal being wrapped around a cylinder. (Again seems reasonable, but wouldn’t a former of any shape do the same?)

Round is the configuration which bests resists damage.  A flat surface would be more susceptible to dents, and sharp corners easily damaged.  (Not sure, where is the evidence)

A cylindrical shape provides structural integrity, allowing the full cans to be stacked four to eight feet high. (Makes absolutely no difference to stackability, if there is such a word, and indeed a can with a circular footprint also wastes space in the packing case it is delivered in. Think of all that empty space between the tins.)

But even though all this is probably true then why spam or corned beef for example are almost invariably found in rectangular tins? It’s a mystery. This mystery leads to on others, once you have started thinking about this sort of thing it has a habit of lingering with you.

Instant coffee is usually bought in glass jars with elaborate plastic lids. Packaging like this must surely be expensive to produce and wasteful. The supermarkets own brands of instant coffee even have jars suspiciously shaped, coloured and labelled very like those of the leading brands.  Refill bags are available but they don’t seem to have the same pull for consumers, so a great deal of money and effort is wasted in the search for market share.  I wonder how many of these jars are reused or recycled.

Shampoos and shower gels in strangely shaped bottles must be awkward to transport efficiently because of the empty space required to fit the containers together. Toothpaste, pump or powder or tube, and this before you even consider the brand. Soap is the same, the bars wrapped to look like boxes are in fact smaller than you would imagine from the outside. Examples of this kind of marketing con are legion. One brand of breakfast cereal even says on the box, “Contents may settle”. This just means that the box contains less of the cereal than you would think from its appearance. It’s a fiddle and we all fall for it. Short of time we race through the supermarket and we buy because of the packaging not the product.

In various parts of the world an argument rages between governments and companies about cigarette packaging. Plain packaging, complete with graphic images of fetid lungs is already in place in Australia and is under discussion in other countries.  This is in an effort to diminish the impact of marketing on the number of smokers. The tobacco companies are desperate not to allow plain packaging to become the norm. Some of the reasons they give are strange to say the least. The tobacco companies talk of “Increased smuggling” because these packets will be easier to fake, small businesses will become “confused”. They ask why other unhealthy products aren’t treated the same way.

And so it goes on, perhaps it’s time we the consumer took a stand and ask for plain packaging of all products with standardised sizes and shapes! That way we can make our choices on based on need, cost and efficacy not on how glossy the tin is. It would be much more efficient, cheaper, and provide a way for us to make a reasoned choice. Supermarket shelves would be less glamorous but would we miss the pressure from the advertisers? I doubt it.

My work background is in operational meteorology and in my career I have been involved in forecasting for everything from bananas to jumbo jets.I joined the Met Office 1974 as an observer at Glasgow Airport. After training as a forecaster, I worked as an Operational aviation forecaster at various defence sites and airports. In 1982, I moved to Glasgow Weather Centre as a forecaster and STV broadcaster till 1988. He then took up a post as Senior Forecaster London Weather Centre, then Senior Forecaster ITV where I qualified as a trainer in presentation techniques for the ITV Association. After being diagnosed with MS, he moved into management and became Head of London Weather Centre in 1997 followed by a period of front-line management for Southern England and Europe covering London and Cardiff Weather Centres and the Met Offices on defence stations from Akrotiri in Cyprus to St Mawgan in Cornwall. He took up the post of Met Office Chief Advisor for Scotland & Northern Ireland in March 2008 and moved to Edinburgh. I retired in September 2014. My one claim to fame is once performed a comedy sketch on TV with Manuel (Andrew Sachs) from Fawlty Towers in support of Comic Relief.

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Posted in Brand, Choice, Comment, Humour, Marketing, Money, Sharing, Waste

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