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Why Is Toy Packaging So Difficult to Open?

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Whether you’re buying them for your kids or yourself, you’ve surely noticed that Barbie dolls, action figures, and other toys often come packed in their own tiny Fort Knoxes, with layers upon layers of plastic, twist ties and tape all housed in an unbreakable plastic “clamshell.” The problem is bad enough that a term has been coined to describe the frustration and anger that result from trying, and failing, to open the packages: wrap rage.

In 2006, Consumer Reports started the Oyster Awards for difficult packaging; first place went to the hard plastic clamshell that held the Uniden Digital Cordless Phone set, which took CR staffers 9 minutes and 22 seconds to open and required a box cutter and a razor blade. Second prize went to American Idol Barbie’s packaging, which didn’t require all that hardware, but took 15 minutes and 10 seconds for "untwisting wires, snapping rubber bands, stripping tape, slicing thick plastic manacles off her arms and torso, cutting off a tab embedded in her head, and carefully ripping a series of stitches securing her tresses to a plastic strip on the back of the box."

These packages are frustrating for consumers, and all this excess plastic can’t be good for the environment. So why pack toys like this?

Try Before You Buy

There’s a couple different reasons. One is marketing. Everyone knows a Coke bottle when they see one. You can usually spot them from way across the store. Not many toys have that sort of iconic packaging and branding, though, so manufacturers want to give kids, and adults, as much of the experience of the toy as they can right there on the store shelf. The consumer should see the whole toy, and if it lights up or makes noise, they should be able to test it right there in its box. To make this happen, toy makers pack their product in those elaborate molded plastic containers that showcase each and every component, and allow shoppers to interact with the thing before buying it.

The packaging is also a matter of security. Theft is a problem for any retailer, but especially when the products themselves are small and can easily be concealed and whisked away. Then there’s the problem of unattended kids who, while mom and dad are shopping, might open up a toy, play with it right in the aisle and leave it there when their parents beckon. Once they’ve been opened, and possibly damaged, products can’t just go back on the shelf. Packaging that requires a few minutes (and maybe a box cutter or a pair of scissors) to open helps deter would-be thieves of all kinds.

For the Road

Then there’s the need to protect the toy during shipping. Take a look at whatever you bought your kids for Christmas—chances are it was made in the Far East, then shipped here by boat and truck. There’s a whole lot of transit and manhandling that goes on between the toy factory and store shelves, and each little piece of the product needs to be secured in place to keep it from being lost or damaged. This partly ties back into marketing: When you see Barbie or Darth Vader on the shelf, you want them be in good condition—hair neat, cape in check, and cell phones and lightsabers where they should be—not looking like they just came off a bender together in the Malibu Dreamhouse.

For what it’s worth, I’ve always found the can opener useful in opening those clamshell packages. Any tips you want to share? Put them in the comments below.

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Big Questions
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
Astrid Riecken, Getty Images

This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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