We live under such a barrage of public service announcements that they have become white noise.
When a train comes to a grinding halt or my plane stands idly by the runway, I may hear an announcement only if I’m annoyed by the “any” in “We apologize for any inconvenience.” To apologize for “any” inconvenience is to allow for the possibility that there is none, but if there is no inconvenience, there’s no need for an apology. The word is “the,” not “any.”
The other day an announcement over our local CVS pharmacy’s loudspeaker did catch my attention: “Customer service needed in body wash.” At first, it didn’t. The woman’s voice sounded so sweet and contained no recognition of the sentence’s possible implications. But then I asked myself, naively, what is “body wash”? Who knew you could get such a sensual experience at a pharmacy? Where would they give it? In a shower stall? But the premises are too small. Another question: What could possibly go wrong in “body wash” that merited customer service?
Then I came down to earth. Okay, “body wash” must be a section selling chemicals of various kinds meant to cleanse the skin. Even so, once all the ambiguity sank in, I laughed. Who knew that a pharmacy’s messaging could lighten any anxiety—I mean the slight anxiety—of waiting for a COVID booster?
How rare for a public announcement to be amusing, by design or otherwise. How even rarer to be useful.
Not that public announcements don’t pretend to serve a social purpose. Ads for alcohol include such lines as, “Please drink responsibly” or “Enjoy responsibly.” In states where gambling advertising is authorized—now the majority—the legal age must be cited and problem gamblers told where they can seek help. I can’t trust the sincerity of these taglines. There’s an unavoidable ulterior motive when it comes to ads for drinkers and casino squanderers. The more alcohol consumed, the bigger the profits. The more a gambler throws money away, the more the casino will give perks galore to keep them gambling.
The liability disclaimer that most troubles me is the typical one about suicide: “If you are having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.” In principle, I have no objection to this advice. Long ago, I volunteered at a suicide hotline. It’s the context that bothers me. This line is likely to appear whenever there’s a news story about someone killing themselves. If suicide alerts serve any social purpose at all, this context should be the beginning, not the beginning and the end. There’s so much in the media and blogosphere that could make you want to swallow several bottles of aspirin, jump off a tall building or take a long bath with your wrists gushing blood that it begs the question, doesn’t the suicide tagline belong everywhere? If the answer is no, it doesn’t belong everywhere, does it belong anywhere?
When I’ve been bombarded with ostensibly suicide-deterrent messages, I might say to myself, “Hold on a moment, didn’t I have a suicidal impulse the other day when waiting an hour for a doctor to see me? No! Actually, what I had was an impulse to murder the doc who had gone out to lunch rather than see me on time.”
So why aren’t there warnings for people who have thoughts of murder? Shouldn’t there be an 800 or text number for would-be killers: “If you are having thoughts of murdering your bigoted uncle at the Thanksgiving table or any owner of a New York sports franchise, call or text…”
I can think of many other places where a murder notice might belong: articles showing an MBA is more important than an MD in hospitals; updates about the Kardasians or Prince Harry; videos of a bare-chested Vladimir Putin; reports of COVID vaccine refusers; evangelical praise for the moral compass-challenged Donald Trump; callously false claims about Ukrainians, Israelis, Palestinians or anyone else.
If advertisers, sellers and the press can convince themselves that suicide alerts dissuade some people from trying to meet their maker, they should also issue ones about murder. Go all the way. But they don’t, and they won’t. Their boilerplate disclaimers are for the protection of lawyers and their clients. The last thing they want is to get mixed up with murder.
Maybe we’d be better off without lawyers. Except I’m one, and I’d really like to keep going. So if an impulse to do away with attorneys comes upon you, call 822-BE-Nice-1 and visit the website Hypocrisy_is_alive_and_well.com.
Apologies for “any” inconvenience aren’t apologies. Generic advice is no advice.