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Can flowers lie?

You might think something as innocent as a flower would by nature be a truth-teller.

But flowers, just like gifts or greeting cards or smiles, can mean all sorts of things. Yes, they have an inherent message of happiness. But that actually puts them at a higher risk of being pressed into service when people are trying to sell, manipulate, distract, or cover up.

I found myself thinking about the uses and abuses of flowers recently when passing through the Amsterdam airport. Like airports everywhere, Schiphol has a fleet of trollies with all the supplies for keeping the bathrooms clean.

Unlike most airports, however, these trollies have a decorator touch. Instead of plain, utilitarian sides, they’re decked out with oversized photos of bright yellow tulips.

You can see what the designers were aiming for. And their hearts were in the right place. But somehow the whole thing backfires. Instead of a nicely decorated utilitarian device, the overall impression is of a highly mixed message and an inept attempt at concealment.

The flowers seem determined to be wishing us the happiest of all possible days. “June is busting out all over!”, they’re practically shouting.

But what’s actually busting out all over is the mops, buckets, cleaners and toilet paper. And those don’t send quite the same message as a field of tulips.

All the same, it’s clear which message is telling the truth about the purpose of the trolley, and which is trying to hoodwink us. And the truth, while prosaic, is more appealing. We like it when we can see the real story peeping out behind an attempt at camouflage.

But consider this: if they’d made the trolley enclosure big enough to hold everything, the flowers might have worked. In other words, if they’d done a better job of hoodwinking us, we’d happily take the flowers at face value.

Well, at least until we smelled the industrial cleaners.