Monday, April 22, 2024

SATURDAY’S CHILD: Ignore this sign


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ONE OF THE great double-binds in communication is the question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?”

Whatever your answer, particularly in a society where domestic violence is a criminal offence, you are likely to put yourself into serious trouble. It is a situation that has been described as “pedodentology” or “putting your foot in your mouth”. In this case, you cannot help incriminating yourself unless you answer a question with a question and ask, “Why are you asking me that, darling?”

At a recent strategic communication workshop I held in Trinidad, I used an example that is less personally involving. It is a sign that says, “Ignore this sign.” Obviously, once you’ve read the sign it is impossible to ignore it. This is completely different from those signs which say, “The tethering of animals is strictly prohibited” and you see cows and goats tied to them. A variation of this sign, in a field in England, has the words, “The farmer allows walkers to cross the field for free, but the bull charges.”

Other forms of “No Trespassing” signs are quite common, particularly in Trinidad where signs declaiming that “Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted” are as common as they are ineffective. One on a Norfolk, England farm gate might achieve better results: “Beware! I shoot every tenth trespasser and the ninth one just left.” In the United States instead of “Beware of the Dog” the sign on a fence read, “Salesmen welcome. Dog food is expensive.” Another sign said, “Everyone on the premises is a vegetarian – except the dog.”   

Passing through San Fernando recently, I saw a classic. It proclaimed, “Body Wash, Underwash, Nipple Greasing Done Here.” Unfortunately, it belonged to an automobile repair shop. There are many examples of inadvertent advertising. A desk was advertised as, “An antique suitable for lady with thick legs and large drawers.” One company wanted “Fifty girls for stripping machine operators in factory.” A very proud laundry described its competitive edge, “We do not tear your clothing with machinery. We do it carefully by hand.” One pet shop was selling a dog which “eats anything and is fond of children”. A classified advertisement in a newspaper read, “Wanted. Man required to work in dynamite factory. Must be willing to travel.”

In Paris there is this hotel sign: “Please leave your values at the front desk.” In Athens one hotel advised, “Visitors are expected to complain at the office between 9 and 11 a.m. daily.” In some countries, chambermaids have it tough – according to the signs. In a Yugoslav hotel: “The flattening of underwear with pleasure is the job of the chambermaid.” In a Japanese hotel: “You are invited to take advantage of the chambermaid.” In Zurich, one hotel wanted to ensure that all was above board. Its sign read, “Because of the impropriety of entertaining guests of the opposite sex in the bedroom, it is suggested that the lobby be used for this purpose.” A Roman laundry suggests, “Ladies, leave your clothes here and spend the afternoon having a good time.”

Even in England, there are problems with signs. A sign in a laundromat read, “Automatic Washing Machines: Please Remove All Your Clothes When the Light Goes Out.” In England, however, there is the sign that many men would love to see. It is outside a second-hand shop and says, “We exchange anything – bicycles, washing machines, etc. Why not bring your wife along and get a wonderful bargain?”

Some signs, however, are deliberately cute. One on an electrician’s truck read, “Let us remove your shorts.” An auto-body shop asked, “May we have the next dents?” And a muffler shop made it clear, “No appointment necessary. We’ll hear you coming.” In the non-smoking area of a large installation was the sign, “If we see you smoking we’ll assume you’re on fire and take appropriate action.” On the door of a maternity ward, the sign read, “PUSH” and someone added, “PUSH, PUSH!” An electric company had one which would win any Use Of English award. It read, “We would be delighted if you pay your bill. However, if you don’t, you will be.”

In addition to the cute and accidental are some that are essentially serious and these take the cake. One for an automobile fan-belt warned, “Do not change the belt while the engine is running.” Another for a hair blow-dryer was firm: “Warning! Do not use while sleeping.’ My favourite is the one written on the back of a car windshield sun-protector. It said, “Do not operate vehicle with screen in place.” Perhaps it was meant for Poland where the announcements and ads are different. In the United States they ask, “It is ten o’clock. Do you know where your children are?” In France they ask, “It’s ten o’clock. Do you know where your wife is?” In Poland they ask, “It’s ten o’clock. Do you know what time it is?”

• Tony Deyal was last seen praising British intelligence. Once in London he saw a leaflet which proclaimed, “If you cannot read, this will tell you how to get lessons.”


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