Archive for the ‘Consumer Products’ Category

My Chemical-Free Nightmare

Friday, April 6th, 2012

One of the perks of having a girlfriend with a broken leg is that she requires assistance in the shower, which I am happy to provide. In my extra time in the bathroom this week, I was horrified to pluck these inconspicuous containers from a lush forest of colorful beauty products:

Organic! Chemical free!            Wait.          Chemical free?!

Hmmm. It sure looks like there is matter inside these bottles, and I’ll bet this matter comprises chemicals of some sort. Why don’t we just take a look at the list of ingredients, shall we?

Nope, I was wrong. No chemicals. Just enzymes, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, amino acids, and fatty acids. No chemicals here :/

I have blurred out the designer of these products because he is my girlfriend’s hairdresser and friend, and I don’t want an army of irate readers to descend on Los Angeles. That said, I have instructed my ladyfriend to relay my emphatic disapproval—in no uncertain terms—of the use of “chemical-free” to describe anything except a completely empty container.

Chemistry has all but completely lost hold of its brand in the sphere of public perception, and in today’s society, that can have disastrous consequences. In politics, parties actively try to sink their competitors by painting them in a negative light. Republicans never miss a chance to label Democrats as “the party that wants to raise your taxes”, while Dems counter that the GOP “only cares about the rich”. This childish back-and-forth is tiresome, but effective. That is why you see politicians jabbing and name calling at every opportunity the media grants them. It’s a vicious cycle, because if you decide to take the high road and not fight back, the negative slogans—whether accurate or not—will stick and seriously damage your brand.

Unlike for political parties, the science of chemistry has no natural enemies. Physicists aren’t going on TV to complain that dirty chemists are getting too much grant money. But, what is happening is that we have stood by while marketing agencies have hijacked and rebranded a few key terms from our jargon. For instance, they have imbued the term “organic” with all sorts of positivity and wholesomeness, while warping its definition from what chemists have historically understood “organic” to mean.

The case of “organic” might not be so bad, but the problem is unequivocally dire for “chemical”. In today’s advertisements, “chemical” no longer has just a negative connotation, it essentially denotes “toxic ingredient”. Somehow, one of our most generic terms—and one that lies at the very foundation of our profession—has been twisted into something dreadfully sinister.

How could we allow such a thing to happen? The answer is obvious: we have never fought back. While our field was maturing as a science and an industry in the 20th century, we proudly trumpeted the idea of “Better Living Through Chemistry”. DuPont even adopted the phrase as a company slogan…only to drop it in the 1980s. Since then, it is hard to point to a solitary example of a serious PR campaign on behalf of chemistry. In the meantime, we have allowed Madison Avenue to fill this vacuum by painting “chemicals” as bad in a wildly successful tactic for marketing consumer products.

In my mind, this is easily the biggest failure of the American Chemical Society, and to me, it appears that the ACS continues to do next to nothing to solve the problem. Chemists cannot count on chemistry and science to “sell itself”. While we know chemistry offers all sorts of benefits to society, we are going to have to load our weapons and mow down the booger-eating ad executives who are wiping the floor with us. The sustained growth and financial support of our field depends on it.

And incidentally, this is the sort of thing for which I pay ACS dues. While the matter is phenomenally important, I really don’t have the time, expertise, or resources ($$$) to mount a national PR campaign to promote our field. That said, I do have the time to campaign against apathetic ACS officers and candidates in the annual ACS elections. Mark my words: we’ll remember come November.

WWWTP? – Creepiness at Phenomenex

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

It’s time for another edition of WWWTP?, which in this case, could just as easily stand for “What’s Wrong with these People?”

This image was kindly forwarded to ChemBark by a concerned reader and patron of Phenomenex. The company ships their products in these sexually suggestive cardboard boxes. The innuendo would make sense and qualify as mildly clever double entendre if the company dealt with genomics, but Phenomenex sells chromatography supplies. I guess someone thought they had a good idea and decided to roll with it:

Inside the box, a colorful brochure contained less disguised innuendo: the words “unzip me” and what appears to be anthropomorphic female genitalia with legs and a cane. Closer inspection of the Phenomenex Web site reveals that these characters are based on an astonishingly yonic logo for Kinetex (R), the company’s core-shell adsorbent materials for chromatography. Hmmm.

I feel it necessary to warn any of you who might be (i) charged with purchasing HPLC supplies and (ii) perverted, that I hear the customer service at Phenomenex is awful.

Now Buckyballs, Too?

Saturday, December 10th, 2011

On a recent cross-country flight, I happened upon this advertisement on page 125 of the Holiday 2011 edition of SkyMall:

As if it wasn’t bad enough that some despicable marketing hacks re-branded the term “organic“, now “Buckyballs” has been pilfered from the world of chemistry. Sadly, a Google search of the term returns the toys before the molecules. I don’t understand what, exactly, is so “bucky” about these balls. I also don’t understand how you could get away with trademarking that name, which has famously referred to C60 and friends since the 1980s.

I hope these toy makers get lumps of coal in their stockings this Christmas.

Pictures of Poisonings

Thursday, May 24th, 2007

I picked up an old issue of the New England Journal of Medicine and came across a couple of interesting picture stories. The first was on a serious HF accident (free access). The poor victim was cleaning an old facility used for glass etching when a pipe containing 70% HF burst on him. The treatment involved pumping Mg2+ and Ca2+ into his veins and arteries. You can actually see the calcified precipitates on his skin. Yum:

The second pict-o-story was based on a tub of fluorescent urine. When admitted to the ER, the urinator was believed to have ingested anti-freeze. The doctors noted that the patient’s pee fluoresced under UV light, and they concluded that this was probably the result of the anti-freeze’s being spiked with dye. The wording of the paper made it seem like the doctors suspected the chromaphore was fluorescein, which is often added to anti-freeze to aid in the detection of radiator leaks.

The only problem is that the fluorescence was blue, not green, which is the color you’d expect from fluorescein. Some other guys noticed the same thing and sent a letter to the editor, so who knows what’s going on?  In their defense, the doctors noted that there are plenty of opportunities for false negatives and false positives if this were to actually be used as a test for anti-freeze ingestion, so it appears the only reason this story was published was as an excuse to run a pretty picture of glowing urine. I can respect that.

Lastly, I should add that both of the patients survived and apologize for ruining your appetites.


Somewhere, a Chemist is Designing Bow Ties

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2007

In setting up the background for this post, I’m going to have to come clean about my penchant for haberdashery. Although I only wear a suit roughly three times year, I own over thirty neckties, five pocket squares (only plebeians call them handkerchiefs), and even a bow tie. I felt compelled to buy one to make my wardrobe complete—there are few fashion statements more clear than wearing a bow tie.  You’re basically saying either:

1) I am better than you and want you to know it, or
2) I am a big dork

Anyway, to match my preferred color of dress shirt, French blue, I bought a solid green bow tie from Beau Ties, Ltd. To my delight, the company has been sending me junk mail ever since.  I was recently flipping through their Spring catalog and came across the new Solids Collection:

Magnificent, aren’t they?  The online version is here. I’ve never seen chemistry used so heavily in a marketing campaign. Carbon Black? Gold Oxide?! CADMIUM yellow?!  I had no idea cadmium was yellow. (It turns out that it isn’t—the soft metal is actually silvery gray—cadmium yellow refers to its sulfur salt.)  There are even ties in the series named after organic dye molecules:

Alizarin Crimson:

and Carmine (which derives its color from carminic acid):

Pretty spiffy.  I’d say that chemistry has finally become cool, but this is an ad for bow ties, so I’ll shut up now.