Fine print

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This article is about small size of text. For other uses, see Fine print (disambiguation).

Fine print, small print, or "mouseprint" is less noticeable print smaller than the more obvious larger print it accompanies that advertises or otherwise describes or partially describes a commercial product or service.[1] The larger print that is used in conjunction with fine print by the merchant often has the effect of deceiving the consumer into believing the offer is more advantageous than it really is, via a legal technicality which requires full disclosure of all (even unfavorable) terms or conditions, but does not specify the manner (size, typeface, coloring, etc.) of disclosure. There is also strong evidence to suggest that the fine print is not read by the majority of consumers.[2]

Fine print may say the opposite of what the larger print says. For example, if the larger print says "pre-approved" the fine print might say "subject to approval." [3] Especially in pharmaceutical advertisements, fine print may accompany a warning message, but this message is often neutralized by the more eye-catching positive images and pleasant background music (eye candy). Sometimes, television advertisements will flash text fine print in camouflagic colors, and for notoriously brief periods of time, making it difficult or impossible for the viewer to read.

The use of fine print has become a common method of advertising in certain market niches, particularly those of high-margin specialty products or services uncompetitive with those in the mainstream market. The practice, for example, can be used to mislead the consumer in reference to an item's price, its value, or the nutritional content of a food product.[4]

US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations state that, for an advertised offer to be lawful, the terms of the offer must be clear and conspicuous, not relegated to fine print.[5]

Industries often using fine print[edit]

The following industries are known to use varying sizes of print frequently in marketing their products or services:

In price deception[edit]

In product value deception[edit]

  • Diet products
    • For example, many ads have included effusive testimonials, dramatic before and after photos, and the small print "results not typical".
  • Mascara
    • For example, many mascara ads feature photos of models wearing false eyelashes, which are sometimes disclosed in fine print.

Controversial aspects[edit]

Legal prohibitions in the United States[edit]

US FTC regulations state that unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce are unlawful. (15 USC § 45 (a))[7] In relevant part, they state that contingent conditions and obligations of an offer must be set forth clearly and conspicuously at the outset of the offer, and that disclosure of the terms of the offer set forth in a footnote of an advertisement to which reference is made by an asterisk or other symbol placed next to the offer, is not regarded as making disclosure at the outset. (16 CFR 251.1)[5]

Fine print is controversial because of its deceptive nature. Its purpose is to make the consumer believe that the offer is really great. Though the real truth about the offer is technically available to the consumer in the smaller print of the advertisement—thus virtually ensuring plausible deniability from claims of fraud—it is often designed to be overlooked. The unsuspecting customer, who can instantly see all the attractive aspects of the offer, will, due to natural impulsive behavior, time constraints, and/or personal need, generally not bother to learn the caveats, instead focusing on the positives of the deal.[3]

Many offers, advertised in large print, only apply when certain conditions are met. In many cases, these conditions are difficult or nearly impossible to meet.

In many cases, the business states in fine print that it reserves the right to modify the terms of the contract at any time with little to no advance notice. This controversial practice is often seen in the banking and insurance industries.[citation needed] It is also widely abused in terms of use statements and privacy policies. However, in early 2009, the federal case of Harris v. Blockbuster Inc. ruled that these "unilateral modification clauses" were illusory and, thus, unenforceable.[8]

In some cases, the seller who uses this technique will engage in the practice of bait and switch. The customer will be told when ready to purchase that for one reason or another, they will not be eligible for the advertised offer, and will be coerced into one that is higher priced (see Hard sell). Reasons they may be given include his/her age, credit rating, size or location of residence, the type of vehicle s/he owns, the amount of prior business s/he has done with that company, or the variety of the item s/he wishes to purchase. Often when this occurs, the limitations that render him/her ineligible will apply to an overwhelming majority of consumers.

Very frequently, consumers, eager to obtain a product or service they have the dire need or wish for, or else that they have been coerced into obtaining, will sign their names on a binding contract. The consumer may be determined to be liable to the terms of the contract, stated only by the fine print, and an exit from these terms may be quite costly or impossible for the consumer.

Some examples of how consumers are deceived are as follows:

  • A credit card, advertised with a 0% rate in large print, will offer this only for an introductory period of a few months. After that, the rate will be something like 19.95%, and may increase even more due to universal default.[9]
  • A cell phone contract may require the subscriber to pay various fees that are originally unnoticed. The subscriber is bound to the contract for a specified period of time, and must pay a large amount to be freed. Additionally, the contract will automatically renew if not cancelled within a certain time frame upon its expiration, thereby further lengthening these terms.
  • A trip, frequently a cruise, will advertise in large print that the price is something attractive, such as $399 for seven days. In smaller print below, the words "per person, double occupancy" (often abbreviated) will be present.[citation needed] This alone will double the advertised offer, since even the solo traveler would be required to rent the room for the price of two. The words "as low as" may also be hidden, for this low price applies only to the least attractive of offers. Other fees that will be mandatory for all or most, such as taxes, transportation to the cruise terminal, and activities on and off the ship, will be extra.[citation needed]
  • A car dealership may advertise a car for sale at far below its market value in large print. Above the "final price" in the largest numbers of all, the real price will be listed at the top in small print. Below that will be several deductions, many of which most customers cannot possibly obtain, such as military membership, or a trade-in. Many of these offers also apply only to a particular model number, and exclude the remainder of the dealer's inventory.[citation needed]
  • Auto repair shops frequently advertise either with coupons or large signs outside their businesses for common maintenance and repair services, such as oil changes, tune-ups, and tires. These ads fail to mention factors that may raise that price, such as fees and add-ons for various services, mechanics telling customers more costly repairs are necessary or else the vehicle may be further damaged, or the price being for each individual part (such as a wheel), where the vehicle has several of that part all needing the service, and thereby multiplying the cost by that number. Many ads will also state in fine print "most cars," but in reality, most cars, including that of the customer seeking the service, will be excluded.[citation needed]
  • Warranties: The warranties for many products, such as automobiles, are offered or sold with the promise that they will cover a large number of scenarios, should they occur, and often routine maintenance. But they are accompanied by fine print to exclude virtually all repairs that will likely be needed. The coverage for some routine maintenance may also be a lure in which the service center will intentionally damage the vehicle, unknown to its owner, thereby forcing the owner to return for additional costly repairs in the future.[citation needed]
  • Insurance policies: Particularly health and life insurance will exclude a good deal of scenarios in which one would normally file a claim. For example, life insurance will not normally cover suicides, and homeowners' insurance will not normally cover arson.
  • Rebates: Many products are advertised with a price printed in large numbers. However, a higher price is printed above in much smaller numbers, and the large-print price is only given after a rebate. Initially, the customer must first pay the high price. In order for the rebate to be redeemed, the customer must then follow a set of instructions. In some cases, meeting all the requirements necessary in order to obtain the rebate may be difficult, and as a result, many rebates are denied.[10]
  • Infomercial products: These come in many forms. Often, companies either load their sales with a lot of fine print, or simply do not abide by their promises (the latter is technically illegal, but many are not worried because the amount they make from ripping people off usually makes up for the amount of fines they pay to the government).

Fine print on TV and other video media[edit]

A common practice has been to use fine print in advertising on television. In such a case, the fine print is displayed at the bottom of the screen in a manner where it is not noticeable to many viewers, or is displayed for such a short time that no one has the time to read the entire paragraph without an artificial means of stopping the commercial, i.e. record it or freeze frame it, such as with a digital video recorder (DVR), in order to read it. The attention is drawn away from this little section by the more eye-catching or large print description of the offer, which alone is untrue.

Fine print is often illegible, e.g., when a TV picture is noisy, low-resolution, or the viewer's sight is impaired. Banking offers have been displayed on video billboards by highways that are unreadable by passing drivers.[11]

Verbal fine print[edit]

Some TV and radio commercials are concluded with "fast talking", which is barely audible or comprehensible to most. While it is this very message that states all necessary disclaimers and exceptions to the advertisement, it is often stated too fast for the viewer or listener to comprehend. This is often coupled with pleasant background music and positive images, which in turn takes the consumer's focus off of the disclaimer.

Fighting fine print[edit]

With proper education, consumers can be warned to read the fine print and to see the red flags on an offer that is too good to be true, even and especially when it is the widespread industry practice.[citation needed]

Many consumer advocates are active in lobbying for laws to limit the rights of an advertiser to use fine print to hide the truth, and to expand rights to consumers who fall victim to fine print. Due to free speech that is granted to advertisers, passing such laws in the United States has proven to be difficult. Many such laws[which?] that have successfully been passed have ultimately been overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. See also Corporate personhood debate.

Credit cards[edit]

Credit card issuers are among the largest of those who have won the fine print battle against the consumer. Consumer advocates have widely criticized the credit card industry for its increasing ruthlessness in its practices, which allow the banks seemingly unlimited rights to charge whatever fees they wish, to rewrite the terms and conditions faced by the consumer at will, and to not be challenged by the consumer in their practices. The consumer who initially obtained the card was inevitably drawn by the large print, which was accompanied by pages of fine print few are likely to read in full or to understand. During the 1990s, two laws against such practices were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, and these rulings are said to have opened the floodgates for even more ruthless practices.[12]

Rebates[edit]

Several states have considered laws that would require retailers to provide advertised rebates to customers at the time of the purchase with no strings attached.[13] These laws have been widely opposed by corporations, and are yet to have passed in any states, except Connecticut and Rhode Island, where they are only allowed if unadvertised.[14]

Banking[edit]

Advertising by conventional banks is relatively highly regulated, requiring disclosures that generally are made, but appear in small print. In some cases, the minimum size of any small print is regulated, such as credit card advertising/application Schumer's_box disclosure requirements. One bank offered non-FDIC-insured CDs yielding 10% in letters almost 3" high, while the small print 1/16" high disclosed the lack of insurance.[15]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Notes

  1. ^ Web site 'outs' fine print - The Red Tape Chronicles - msnbc.com
  2. ^ http://www.forbes.com/sites/firewall/2010/04/08/who-reads-the-fine-print-online-less-than-one-person-in-1000/ Who Reads The Fine Print Online? Less Than One Person In 1000 - Forbes
  3. ^ a b AG filing against BlueHippo
  4. ^ For example, see the Macy's ad image in this article, which tends to mislead the consumer to think that a discount will be available and hence to shop at Macy's because of anticipated pricing that will likely turn out to be unavailable.
  5. ^ a b http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/search/pagedetails.action?browsePath=Title+16%2FChapter+I%2FSubchapter+B%2FPart+251%2FSection+251.1&granuleId=CFR-2011-title16-vol1-sec251-1&packageId=CFR-2011-title16-vol1&collapse=true&fromBrowse=true
  6. ^ Macy's Issues Worst Coupon Ever - The Consumerist
  7. ^ http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/15/45
  8. ^ "Texas Court Rules that Internet Contract Giving Website Owner the Right to Make Unilateral Amendments Is Illusory". April 22, 2009. Archived from the original on 2010-12-22. 
  9. ^ frontline: secret history of the credit card: eight things a credit card user should know | PBS
  10. ^ AG filing against TigerDirect
  11. ^ A CBS Outdoors digital billboard, located on the East Bay side of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, 59' x 19' with a resolution of 720 x 240 pixels, displayed a banking ad with small print on May 6, 2009.[better source needed]
  12. ^ Public Citizen | Congress Watch | Congress Watch - The Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act
  13. ^ http://open.nysenate.gov/legislation/bill/S6815-2011
  14. ^ http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/workshops/rebatedebate/presentations/Edwards.pdf
  15. ^ http://www.fdic.gov/deposit/insurance/initiative/thomaswharton.pdf

Further reading

External links[edit]