Monday, April 16, 2007

A Lakoffian criticism of dumpster warning

Detail of photo taken from

This warning, found on dumpsters, has always struck me as stupid and counter-productive. As a kid, I had never wanted to play on or around a dumpster until this yellow warning label put the idea into my head. Now that I know about the concept of framing, I can explain in more detail why this warning label is stupid. Here are two mistakes the warning label makes:

Moral 3: Negating a frame evokes the frame.

By saying "Do not play on or around", you're actually activating the frame of playing on or around the dumpster. It's the equivalent of "Don't Think of an Elephant". Reading that label, you can't help but thinking of playing on or around the dumpster. Various games you might play or stunts you might attempt spontaneously leap into your brain. This is why ads for Coke don't say "Don't drink Pepsi": that would just evoke the Pepsi frame.

Moral 4: Evoking a frame reinforces that frame.

By evoking the "playing on dumpsters" frame, the warning label actually perpetuates the idea of playing on dumpsters. It puts that idea out into the meme-sphere, so to speak. It even makes it sound like lots of people do this (or why the need for a warning label?). All these things make it more likely that people will actually engage in the proscribed behavior. If it's both prohibited and popular, it must be really cool.

Of course, this bad framing actually makes perfect sense, because the purpose of the label isn't really to prevent people from playing on or around the dumpster. Its purpose is to cover the asses of the dumpster owner in case anyone gets hurt. The game is pretty much given away by the subtitle under the warning: "Not responsible for personal injury."

Other "public service" warnings that seem to violate framing rules:
"Just say no to drugs"
"Don't illegally download music"
"Don't have sex before marriage"


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