WRAP RAGE (2006)

Today's packages can be murder to open,” according to a recent headline in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Consumers are apparently having difficulty opening cell phones, children’s toys, or even cereal packages. This phenomenon is apparently not from some mysterious decline in intelligence or manual dexterity. As times get tough, packaging is getting tougher.

The result is so-called “wrap rage,” defined elsewhere as “extreme anger caused by product packaging that is difficult to open or manipulate.” In the first reported use of the term, a 2004 article in The Times (London) notes the iconic status of music CDs in consumer frustration. “The crucible of wrap rage is, of course, the CD. It was universally repackaged in 1992, its old cardboard box replaced by plastic wrap with a zip-strip. The answer to our unwrapping prayers! Yet 12 years later, a pull-tab torn off in hand, we are still chewing through plastic like wild dogs.”

Last week, several CDs I had ordered online arrived in the mail. I stripped the cellophane relatively easy with my car keys, but then I encountered an impereable strip of adhesive along the edge of the cases. A time-wasting search for an Exacto knife ensued. No biggie. I found the knife, and then closure by attacking the items like a bloodcrazed ninja.

In the annoyance stakes, music CDs are nickel and dime stuff. Last month,
Consumer Reports announced its first-ever “Oyster Awards” for imperviously packaged products. First prize went to the “hard-plastic clamshell packaging for the Uniden Digital Cordless Phone set, “ which took nine minutes and 22 seconds to open. This wasn’t even the longest time for a product, but it was “by far the most dangerous, requiring box cutters and a razor blade.”

And I thought it was just my partner and I. Last Christmas, we got into a Chaplinesque tussle with an implacably packaged action figure. Apparently some supervillain had securely tied the cartoon character to the backing, using twist ties and tiny bungie cords, and then imprisoned him in a plastic forcefield -- for eternity. And that’s about how long it felt to disengage the prize for my partner’s nephew, who stood watching adults wrestle with a toy. The finale of the experience is a blur, so I may have repressed the complete memory (I have recurring dreams about spattered eggnog and power tools).

According to a report in Australia’s
Herald Sun, a 2004 study in Britain demonstrated that injuries caused by packaging cost the National Health Service about $25 million US a year. Noting the health costs of wrap rage to Britons, Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert recently mused on the domestic costs if a similar pattern held for the US. “I’ll just get out my new graphing calculator,” said the show host, gnawing at the edge of the calculator’s plastic packaging, before stabbing at it with his pen. “I’ll see you in hell,” screamed Colbert, slamming the unopened product down to the ground.

Children’s toys and the like are among the most securely packaged products. Barbies are affixed tightly to ensure they don’t arrive at the shipping dock looking like Courtney Love on a bender. The bulletproof packaging of consumer products apparently serves other purposes besides keeping the items in pristine condition in transit. Making a small item large and ungainly discourages shoplifters. “High visibility packaging” also allows retailers to suspend a product from a peg, leaving it to sell itself, with little input from thinly-staffed big box stores.

There are better ways of getting things into customers’ hands. When I bought my iPod from Costco, all there was on the display floor was a stack of plastic clamshells, containing a glossy depiction of the device and its specs. I picked one up and exchanged it at the cash register for the real thing, which was contained in a small, stylish, paper box. Great idea. As a shopping experience, it was seamless, and a cinch -- although I know this was arranged more for security reasons than customer satisfaction. So I don’t hold out much hope the market will respond significantly to a rising tide of wrap rage. Once the transaction is done, and you’re left with something super, encased in its own fortress of solitude, It’s pretty much a done deal. If said item should expire during extraction under your bleeding, trembling hands, well, them’s the breaks. Future consumers will just have to evolve the arm strength of orangutangs.

In our blisterpacked new world, I’m less concerned about media-trumpeted terrors than I am about open manholes and strewn banana peels. In other words, it’s me I’m really afraid of. I don’t think I’ll drop from bird flu, but there’s an outside chance I’ll impale myself on a
screwdriver while trying to open a plastic clamshell containing X-Men’s Wolverine.

Geoff Olson