Des King says the industry must do more to combat consumer antipathy by highlighting its achievements

The packaging survey featured in the February issue of Yours – a mass circulation consumer monthly for the Saga generation – demonstrated yet again the low regard in which our industry is held by the public.

The consumer press attacking packaging is hardly new. It’s the sort of editorial focus that will always get an airing come a slow news day. On the Richter Scale of child abuse, cruelty to animals and yob culture, packaging scarcely falls into the fear and loathing category. But when it comes to irritation, it’s there in abundance.

Setting aside the likely bias pre-empting the way in which the survey would have been conducted -“Does packaging drive you up the wall?” – the usual suspects were singled out for a visit to the headmaster’s study: ring-pull cans; child-resistant closures; jam jars (a perennial offender); cellophane wrap on cigarette packs et al.

The paper bag, conversely, was voted top of the form. As many as 99% of the readers surveyed claimed packaging had become more difficult to open in the past 10 years. Well, there’s a surprise.

Life at 55+ has its compensations but for the elderly or infirm to complain about opening a packet of Marlboro is almost inevitable, although one is tempted to question whether they be smoking anyway? Speaking as one of the growing ranks of grey consumers, they might as easily be complaining about the height of the stairs or state of the weather.

Prior to the advent of ring-pulls, petfood cans weren’t exactly easy or even safe to open, prescription pills in a standard screw-cap glass bottle can seem as tempting and accessible as Smarties to an inquisitive child and cheese retains its freshness in a shrinkwrap pack.

We know all this and, despite the inevitable balancing act between cost and capability, by and large it’s a knowledge translated into the marketing of consumer products. Where we’ve consistently not delivered is in explaining packaging’s true role to the consumer. In consequence, the industry is regularly fingered as the villain.

Never mind the industry consultative committees; what’s needed is some straightforward spin doctoring. Aiming to turn irritation into adulation might be expecting too much but there’s plenty of innovative, helpful packaging to be proud of. We should know. We hear about innovations every month.

In the meantime Packaging Federation ceo Ian Dent says: “These are all warning shots across the bow of the industry. We can’t just pooh-pooh them and let them go away. We must take a more positive stance.”

More evidence of best of class packaging on show at Total this month would have been a good start. To shape consumer attitudes, however, the more telling argument in support of the role played in everyday life by effective and reliable packaging needs to be out there in the public domain.

As long as we continue equating shopping with convenience, the paper bag is unlikely to make a comeback. Contemporary packaging is the best possible means to an end of our own cultural choosing.

We should be getting that collective message across to the general public. No one else will do it for us.