Today
Sun 5 December 2021

During lockdown, Keith Kahn-Harris discovered a strange anomaly inside Kinder Surprise Eggs, and almost began to uncover a vast corporate conspiracy…

I did my own research. I followed the breadcrumb trail down the rabbit hole. I took the red pill and went through the looking glass. 

And what I found at the end was a scandal so cunningly hidden it was almost as if it didn’t exist at all.

The Estonian translation of the warning message found inside Kinder Surprise Eggs contains multiple errors.

How could this be? 


Kinder Surprise Eggs include a small sheet of paper warning that the toy is not suitable for children under 3 years as “small parts could be swallowed or inhaled”. The warning message is included in 34 languages. A monument to the exemplary responsibility of Ferrero, the corporation that manufactures the eggs; or so you’d think. Yet, after years of exhaustive research on the mysteries of this manuscript, I found a monumental mistake: 

Photo courtesty of Keith Kahn-Harris

For those who do not read Estonian, this seems like a benign text. Take a look though at the final word of the second line ‘voivad’. It includes a diacritic that bisects the left hand of the ‘o’. This is not a diacritic that exists in any language. The outrage continues with the ‘o’s later on in the message, which are headed by a flat line, known as a macron. This diacritic does exist in multiple languages – but not in Estonian. In fact, these four o’s have all been besmirched by inaccurate diacriticisation. They should be ‘õ’s, including the tilde; its use on vowels a marker of Estonian’s distinctiveness (and used in Spanish on the ‘n’, as in España)So the warning message in Estonian should actually read:

TÄHELEPANU! LOE LÄBI JA HOIA ALLES: need võivad sattuda lastele suhu või hingamisteedesse ja põhjustada õnnetuse.

It gets worse: According to Helmut’s Sammlerstein, the most extensive archive of Kinder Surprise warning messages on the internet, the mistake first appeared in 2014 and has persisted through dozens of iterations of the manuscript. 

As any responsible citizen would, I sought to draw this horrendous error to the attention of Ferrero, only to be stonewalled. There is no branch of the corporation in Estonia (although, mysteriously, there is a Kinder Surprise website in the Estonian language). The corporate website does not give details of who to call if you find a mistake in their warning messages. The UK branch of the website outsources its PR and would not put me in touch with the department of warning messages.   

I was forced to conclude that something was going on, something big. I am still doing my research but I have found one further, tantalising, clue. Both the Armenian and Azerbaijani warning messages are printed within inverted commas (in the latter case, a version known as a guillemot):

Photo courtesty of Keith Kahn-Harris
Photo courtesty of Keith Kahn-Harris

Putting the message in quote marks is a coded signal to readers. I’m not sure what it signifies but there is also something odd about the Azerbaijani message: It includes letters collided together, known as ligatures, yet Azerbaijani Latin script does not include ligatures. Could this be another signal to the reader? And does the conflict between Armenian and Azerbaijan play a role here? Is this a sign of secret collusion or a partisan manipulation of Azerbaijani-Armenian hostility?


Ferrero is a vast corporation, straddling the globe. Could it be that we can read the warning message sheet inside Kinder Surprise Eggs as a manuscript that, once decoded, contains the traces of secret manipulations of world affairs?

The answer is: Absolutely not. That would be ridiculous.

That doesn’t mean though, that a close reading of the Kinder Surprise warning message isn’t worth doing. I would say that of course; I’ve just published a book The Babel Message: A Love Letter to Language which uses a deep analysis of the multilingual messages on this small sheet of paper as a jumping-off point for a wider exploration of the joys of linguistic diversity.

But there’s a wider reason too. The apparently tiny details on the objects we encounter in our everyday life matter. They represent the encounter between ourselves and the institutions that are an integral part of our life experience. And from that encounter, we can pick up on all sorts of clues, accurate or not, about what the world is.

You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to assume that the Kinder Surprise warning sheets are carefully compiled to produce a consistent message. To find out that, on the contrary, there are inconsistencies and inaccuracies in the messages tell us something both about global corporations and about linguistic diversity. Languages are slippery, full of all kinds of pitfalls for the unwary, such as mistaking one tiny diacritic for another. Ferrero, like other multinational corporations, is obliged to wrangle a multiplicity of languages and no one person in their corporate HQ in Luxembourg knows all of them. 

  

One can therefore tell an optimistic and pessimistic story about the warning messages inside Kinder Surprise Eggs. The optimistic one is that multinationals, while they may be forces for globalised homogeneity, are also sometimes subject to linguistic forces they struggle to control. That balancing force offers possibilities for taking pleasure in their products – as I do in my book – in ways corporations do not dictate. 

The pessimistic story is that if mistakes can creep into something as tiny as the Kinder Surprise warning message – and stay there for years – then they can prove even harder to eradicate in the big things. After all, the warning message does provide important information, even though a monoglot Estonian or Azerbaijani could work out what the messages should actually read.

It took my desperation for a diverting lockdown project to finally bring the warning message errors to light, and once I discovered them it has proved very difficult to report them (in the end I discovered that Ferrero products in Estonia are controlled by the Polish branch, to whom I managed to alert the error). What other hidden deficiencies lurk in the unnoticed material fabric of everyday life? And why should it take an obsessive to find them?

Keith Kahn-Harris’ ‘The Babel Message: A Love Letter to Language‘ is published by Icon Books

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