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What’s powdery and comes out of a metallic-green cardboard can?

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This (by Jason Torchinsky, from Stay Free magazine, around 1998?) is just hilarious. We used to have both those shake-out-the-powder cans, Comet and that parmesan cheese, in our house when I was growing up.


  1. Martha (Smith) says:

    Hilarious? I’d call it sad, worrying, negligent, …

  2. zbicyclist says:

    This is why you shouldn’t keep the Comet on the kitchen counter.

  3. Jonathan says:

    They smell extremely different. And a tiny bit of Comet in your mouth would be a strong clue too; it not only tastes awful but the taste spreads in your mouth rapidly.

    We could design a user: blind, no sense of smell, no sense of taste, but that asks why the person would be sprinkling stuff on food, so we could assume a 3rd can which would be some sort needed dietary supplement. That would be the 3rd Can Hypothesis!

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      “a tiny bit of Comet in your mouth would be a strong clue too; it not only tastes awful but the taste spreads in your mouth rapidly.”

      Is this personal testimony based on having tried it?

      However, little kids have been know to ingest stuff that I would assume tastes pretty foul — like detergent and bleach “pods”.

  4. One more similarity and one more ambiguity:

    1. Both have their brand names inscribed within a polygon. Those who confuse pentagons with hexagons could easily take one for the other. In addition, hexagons have connotations of witches. If you think of “Double, double, toil and trouble” when you think of the Pentagon, you could get confused.

    2. Each one’s name seems better suited to the other. I would associate a “comet” with hair, i.e., spaghetti (since “comet” comes from the Greek “come,” “hair of the head”). Likewise, I would associate “kraft” with the “craft” of housecleaning. Granted, there is craft in twirling spaghetti around on your fork, but that’s an unnecessary twist to the whole matter.

  5. Jonathan (another one) says:

    Wait… they’re not the same? No wonder no one asks for seconds on my spaghetti.

  6. Njnnja says:

    The correct answer to the second riddle is:

    One tastes nothing like Parmesan cheese, the other is a good cleaner.”

  7. Ken says:

    They do the same with some injectables for medical purposes, so that occasionally someone gets confused and a patient dies.

  8. jrkrideau says:

    Well I have had a bottle of olive oil and a bottle of balsamic vinegar that looked almost identical and stupidly stored near one another.

    Eggs fried in balsamic vinegar are not all that good.

    More seriously from an ergonomics viewpoint, it appears that all small bottles used to hold injectable drugs that I see in hospitals are identical except for the label and come to think of it my pain-killer prescription drugs for dental surgery and for my rotating cuff injury are again identical except for a not-very-readable label.

    This is not good design, just as the Comet/Kraft Parmesan is not good though it is not clear that one would notice the difference if eating spaghetti.

    Now, here in Canada, our beer bottles tend to be quite distinct. Clearly we have our priorities correctly aligned.

    • Rahul says:

      FDA does look for naming similarities & will reject confusingly similar names.

      • Yeah, but I’d be in favor of something like a random color code on medical bottle labels, let’s say a stripe along the border that has different colors in each of the different quadrants, let’s call it a palette of say 6 colors chosen for color-blindness sensitivity and then randomly placed in such a way that you can generate 6^4 = 1296 different color codes.

        The only concern would be that people rely SOLELY on the color codes and then we actually increase the rate of accidents, but it seems like it’d be worth a trial run.

        Basically I’m assuming it’s easier and more reliable to see a pattern of colors at the 4 corners of a label than it is to read the name printed in tiny print, and although you should look at both, if you have the color codes, problems will be more easily detected. We could talk about how to do it (assign the code to the patient? To each individual bottle? To different medications? etc)

        • Martha (Smith) says:

          Daniel: I don’t see how this scheme would be very helpful — people would need to remember the “color-code”. Something like requiring large print identifiers at the top of the label (e.g., “FOR POST-DENTAL-SURGERY PAIN” and “FOR ROTATOR CUFF INJURY” in jkr’s case).

          In the absence of such labeling, it would be helpful if some organization(s) started a campaign urging people to write such labels on their pill bottles themselves.

          • Rahul says:

            I tend to think that the downside of a patient confusing drug-A with drug-B both prescribed to himself is smaller than the downside of a pharmacist handing out the wrong drug or a doctor writing our a wrong prescription.

        • Rahul says:


          You are talking of customized per-patient labels? If so, there’s a bunch of possibilities.

          I was thinking in terms of non-customized labels.

  9. jrc says:

    Here is my guess… somewhere there was a guy who worked for a large can-manufacturing company, and he designed a can with sprinkle tops that would work for every powder you wanted to sell. He mocked up a few color combinations and sent out the sales reps to every company making powders: Kraft, Comet, Ajax, rat poison, ice-cream sprinkles… you name it.

    And that sales guy sold the hell out of that design. I’m guessing this was like mid-1950’s…. apparently the first Comet cans came in pink (you know, for the ladies) and while I can’t find early Kraft Parmesan from 1945-1960, by 1960 they are green-canned too.

    And that is my wild speculation for today.

    • Inspired by your speculation, my mind wanders…

      Chapter 1: M., at her desk in a dark garret, surrounded by sketches of containers — squares, spheres, pyramids, … “I’ve got it!” she says, and whips up a drawing of a cylinder with holes at the top, colored a striking dark green. Her happiness, though, is interrupted by a hacking cough.

      Chapter 2: In the hospital, dying of tuberculosis, M. implores her brother, the ne’er-do-well N., to bring her design to the world. N. knows nothing of product design or commercial manufacturing. Being a mobster, though, he knows ways of persuading people.

      Chapter 3: N. visits every company making powders — “Kraft, Comet, Ajax, rat poison, ice-cream sprinkles… you name it.” He makes them offers they can’t refuse. Some refuse; we never hear from those companies again. Soon, everything from parmesan cheese to household cleaners are sold in M’s cylindrical containers.

      Chapter 4: A beautiful summer day. N., outside in his garden, thinks about leaving organized crime, to spend more time with his family. Through the window he sees his two-year-old son, eating from a green cylindrical container. “NOOOOOOO!” he yells, recognizing the label as Comet. He rushes in, tosses the can aside, but it’s too late. Distraught, his eyes full of tears, he grabs a green cylindrical container and tips its contents into his mouth, to end it all. “Ugh!” he says. “Parmesan cheese!”

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