The Decepticons

Perceivings by Alan Dean Foster

It was the ice cream that finally did it.

Product packaging is both an art and a science. The same could be said of playing blackjack in Las Vegas. The difference is that you have a better chance of coming out a winner at the table in Vegas. By playing the table, or in this case the shelves, at your local supermarket or drugstore, you’re already a loser. The difference is that in Vegas you lose fast. Little time for remorse. At your supermarket, you lose slowly. Verrrry slowly. Your favorite brands hope you don’t even notice. Apparently we don’t, because with very few exceptions we accept these periodic abuses as if they are inevitable. We cringe silently as we pay for our own maltreatment. We love our favorite products and in return, from their manufacturers we receive nothing but contempt and indifference.

That pint of ice cream that pushed me over the edge? It’s not a pint: it’s 14oz. Don’t believe me? Check it out the next time you go shopping. Häagen-Dazs started this downsizing in 2009. Some brands are still a full 16oz. An example is Graeter’s, my favorite store-bought ice cream in the Prescott area (although far too few of the company’s flavors are carried locally — where’s my coconut chocolate chip?). But in the ice-cream section 14oz cups are still shelved right next to the 16oz. When I buy a pint of ice cream, I don’t want to have to check every label to make sure it’s a pint.

As I said, this deconstruction of American packaging occurs over time, so the producers hope you won’t notice. I can hardly think of a single product that has not been adversely affected. Breakfast cereal? The boxes have stayed the same size, but hey, is that less actual cereal in the box? The only way to know is to have an old box of the same stuff so you can do a side-by-side comparison, and who does that? What’s the point, anyway? The manufacturer is not going to pay attention. There hasn’t been a public uprising where throngs of rioters assault General Mills. So the packaging “specialists,” artisans of deception that they are, keep getting away with it.

Remember when you used to buy soda in quarts? For some time now it has been liters. But this is America, and we don’t much like the (far more sensible) metric system. So how and why have soda producers succeeded in selling us on liters of Coke, or Pepsi or (if you have taste) RC? Does anybody really remember when or why this changeover took place?

The explanation is simple. A liter is 0.946 quart. You think you are still buying a quart, but you’re buying less. Not a whole lot less — like I said, the deception is as gradual as it is insidious. Nor is it restricted to food.

When was the last time you opened a bottle of pills (medicine, dietary supplement, vitamins, it doesn’t matter) and found the bottle filled to the top? Or even in the geographic vicinity of the top? According to the innocent manufacturer, that gaping, Grand Canyon-size vacant space is due to “some settling in transit.” Sure it is. I packed a bottle of vitamins full to the brim and shook the hell out of it. There was some very modest settling, sure, but nothing like opening a bottle and finding it half full. A nuclear blast couldn’t have settled those little suckers any more. We hear the same excuse for cereal.

Among the worst offenders are powdered products, where the some-settling-in-transit excuse is king. This offense varies among manufacturers. I’ve bought some supplement powders where the container is literally half empty. “Settling in transit” my sugar substitute!

Another favorite offender is toilet paper. One of our bathrooms has a t-paper holder that eliminates the center roller. It’s just two spring-loaded clips, one on each side of the holder. It worked perfectly fine for decades. Then one day when I went to install a new roll, it just fell through, too narrow for the clips. In-depth scientific study (accompanied by suitably non-scientific language) revealed that while the roll was the same length as before and contained the same number of sheets (do consumers really count the number of sheets on a roll of toilet paper when comparison shopping?), it was now narrower. So, less paper, but it looks the same, and if you use the standard fits-on-a-roller holder you’d likely never notice the change.

Face it, we’re suckers.We put up with these insults every time we shop. All I can say is, check the actual weight on the cereal you buy, stick to full pints of ice cream, and if a product is in a transparent bottle or tube, check the fill level.

Honestly, sometimes I do think we live in a third-world country. Except there, in small city or country markets, if you try this sort of brazen subterfuge, the other vendors will fall on you and chase you out of the souk, or bazaar, or street market, howling with outrage.

Because they have honor.

Prescott resident Alan Dean Foster is the author of 130 books. Follow him at

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