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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 28th August 2011

In a single advert break during a TV programme I was watching, I noticed three examples of the English language being used to try and make me believe things that the actual words being used did not mean.

The connection with poisonous plants may seem tenuous but I can assure you there is one, for me at least, though you’re entitled to think it is a bit of a stretch.

First, the three adverts, though I won’t give enough information to make the products identifiable because I’m not picking on these products specifically; almost every advert uses some sort of trick with the English language to try and make you think the product has some power that the advertiser cannot directly claim within the Advertising Standards Authority’s rules.

First, there was the floor-cleaning product that delivers ‘up to 100%’ of a claimed condition. You are supposed to conclude that the product reaches near perfection but the ‘up to’ really just means that the claimed result is some positive percentage between zero and one hundred. You’re using a computer to read this which, probably, means you’ve had to choose a service provider at some point and that means you’ve read all the ‘up to’ claims on broadband speeds. I hope it also means you’ve read the frequent criticism from consumer groups and various regulators about ISPs using ‘up to’ claims to infer far better performance than is actually delivered.

And, yet, a cleaning product manufacturer still thinks people will fall for an ‘up to’ claim when it comes to the performance of its cleaning product. Do they think the people who buy cleaning products are more stupid than those who decide which ISP to use? Or, is the reality that people still ignore the ‘up to’ and just look at whatever number follows that?

The second advert was for another cleaning product but this time a dishwasher liquid that removes ‘hidden’ dirt. If the dirt is hidden, how can I check that the product is doing what it claims? Products that say they deal with anything ‘hidden’ are trying to make us scared of dangers we can’t see and hoping that we’ll trust them to deal with these terrible threats.

And the third was for a product that doesn’t so much clean as cover up dirt. A small print line at the bottom of the screen said ‘real people not actors’. Obviously, you’re supposed to be impressed by the reaction of ‘real people’ to what was, literally, a blind test. That is, the participants were blindfolded and their reaction filmed when the blindfolds were removed. But is ‘real people not actors’ the same things as ‘real reactions not acted’. Surely, it’s perfectly possible for real people to pretend; in fact it’s more than possible, real people pretend things every day.

So, my point is that you need to examine the exact wording of an advert to see if what you are expected to believe is actually what is being said.

Ilex aquilfolium, holly

And the relevance of this to poisonous plants is that a great deal of what is written and said about them is also over-stated and should be thought through. Saying that holly should not be brought into the house at Christmas because Ilex aquifolium is poisonous ignores the absence of any proven cases of poisoning and even a little thought will show that the idea that fake mistletoe is to be preferred over actual Viscum album because of the danger from the toxic berries ignores the choking hazard that a plastic berry could easily provide to a small child.

Using the number of plant involved calls to Poison Control Centers in the USA as a measure of the extent of the harm done by poisonous plants is intended to make you believe that every call was about a serious poisoning incident whereas it only takes a quick examination of the figures to see that many calls about suspected poisonous plants are actually about plants that are completely benign and the number of serious incidents from the 60,000 or so calls is less than one hundred. 

When detailing the harm suffered by some users of psychoactive substances the important word is ‘some’ as, especially with cannabis, prohibitionists will often suggest that effects seen in a minority of users are experienced by every user.

But the most frequent example of misunderstanding of the language used as far as poisonous plants are concerned is the use of ‘can’ in the hope that people will think this means ‘does’. The iconic gates of the Alnwick Garden Poison Garden bear the legend ‘These Plants Can Kill’ but only a very few of them ‘do’.