Fine Print Advertising – Is it Deceptive and Misleading?

Fine Print Advertising - Deceptive? Misleading?

Fine print advertising. Those tiny words and sentences at the bottom of advertisements containing the details of an offer. The kind that requires a magnifying glass or extreme prescription glasses to actually see what is in an offer. Consumers have gotten so used to the fine print many do not even read further into the details. However, more people should pay attention to those tiny words because the devil is always in those details.

Although numerous laws are in place for fair advertising, businesses do not always play by the rules. They many times try to bend them as far as possible. How can the tiny words on print advertising really be completely transparent when often the larger ad is there to quickly deceive someone not paying attention to the details? Other examples are television and radio commercials. These are not print advertising, but the advertisers cover their disclaimers in what sounds like another language because it is spoken so fast. No one can possibly understand what is being communicated.

I have often asked myself how all of the tiny print is legal? Sure, at the end of the day adults should be held responsible for their purchase decisions. It is our responsibility to fully understand and research the details. Yet, it really is just not fun to play the games many companies use in their advertising and there should be some improvements made for regulation.

Who is regulating advertisers?

The short answers to who is regulating advertisers are the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and even most states have their own laws. The problem is they often rely on consumers and competitors to report unlawful advertising practices. With all of the ads we are all hit with every day how can regulators really manage fair advertising? The answer is in many cases they can’t. This is why it is important when looking at an advertisement you should always get further details.

What applies to advertisers when it comes to following the rules?

According to the Federal Trade Commission Act:

  • Advertising must be truthful and non-deceptive;
  • Advertisers must have evidence to back up their claims; and
  • Advertisements cannot be unfair.

Look at the sample advertisement below. This was one I received in the mail. How can it not be considered unfair when the price advertised is likely not even close to the final one that would be in the bill each month?

What makes an advertisement deceptive or unfair?

The FTC defines an ad as being deceptive if it contains a statement or omits information that:

  • Is likely to mislead consumers acting reasonably under the circumstances; and
  • Is “material” – that is, important to a consumer’s decision to buy or use the product.

Further, the FTC’s Unfairness Policy Statement states an ad is unfair if:

  • it causes or is likely to cause substantial consumer injury which a consumer could not reasonably avoid; and
  • it is not outweighed by the benefit to consumers.

Looking at the example advertisement above for cable television and internet, it would seem to be on the line of deceptive at most. If you do not have magnifying vision, the ad is certainly misleading. Add this to the additional charges at the bottom and the likelihood the actual price will be what is advertised and it certainly seems to be misleading.

There aren’t any concrete rules on the size of the print an advertisement needs to be, but the FTC does have a determination to see if the print passes their inspection and it must:

·      Prominence: is the fine print big enough for people to notice and read?

·      Presentation: is the wording and format easy for people to understand?

·      Placement: is the fine print where people will look?

·      Proximity: is the fine print near the claim it qualifies?

The problem to me with this determination for using small print is it appears to be very vague. Is the print big enough for people to read? Maybe for some people and not others. Are the wording and format easy for people to understand? Who determines this?

Auto dealerships are some of the biggest small print and disclaimer advertisers. 

I realize every for-profit business needs to do just this. They need to make a profit to stay in business. Yet, many car dealerships push the envelope of making money and ripping people off. They are some of the biggest users of small print advertising with disclaimers. So big in fact, the Federal Trade Commission flat out tells buyers they need to beware because not all dealers play by the rules. They even realize that car sales details are buried deep in the small print.

Laws require car dealer discounts, prices or special low payments in advertisements clearly state the details of the offer and how a buyer must qualify. Many car dealers that advertise might put this information in the miniaturized form on their ads, but most of the time it almost completely disqualifies how the original advertisement comes across.

Car ads can be so deceptive the FTC even made a short video on how to spot their deception.

Here is an example auto dealer advertisement I received in the mail. This is only half of the disclaimers listed at the bottom. The leases and new autos in the advertisement are not shown in the example, but the disclaimer says it all “with approved credit and minimum 720 credit score.” The average credit score in America right now is about 695, according to ValuePenguin. What the advertisement says is most people will not qualify for the offer. How is this right?

If you haven’t picked up on it yet, auto dealers definitely use advertising to get people to come to see them. The price they advertise is likely never the same as you will pay or the ad says you might be paying.

The problem with advertisement regulations. 

Part of the issue with regulating advertisements is they are all not regulated by the same people. The FTC has jurisdiction over ads for most products and services. However, other agencies often oversee ads by airlines, banks, insurance companies, common carriers and companies that sell securities or commodities. The Federal Trade Commission refers to other agencies and many times works with them. Although the FTC oversees quite a bit, it does not seem the rules might be the same for everyone.

Another part of the issue is it would seem that regulators heavily relies on consumers to let them know when an advertisement does not seem to be fair. With what appears to be deceiving and not playing by the rules in a large part of the advertisements I personally get, it looks like I have just gotten used to it. I can only believe many other consumers and business competitors have also gotten numb to advertisements not containing the full story or burying it in microscopic print. Many ads that might not quite be right probably do not get reported unless they are just blatantly not telling the truth.

What can you do to protect yourself against the small print and disclaimers in advertisements?

The best way to protect yourself from small print advertising is to actually read it. You might need to put on some reading glasses or use a magnifying glass, but you should always read the fine print. With small print that flashes on a television screen, you should ask for the details before paying for anything.

It should really not come as a surprise that many of the advertisements we see in our mailbox, on the internet or through a television commercial contain much more information about a deal than what is originally communicated. Radio ads you can many times just hear the sounds of disclaimers as someone talks at 1000 miles per hour to tell the listeners the advertisement is likely not what they originally convey.

What is the conclusion?

When it comes to advertisements the old saying “don’t believe everything you read” is definitely true. This would also be in the same category as not to believe everything you hear with television and radio ads. Advertisers are not immediately transparent in their offers a majority of the time. The details are always in the fine print, which often makes an original offer completely irrelevant. Car dealers are one of the biggest offenders of putting in so many disclaimers they do not even have to stick with their original offer. It is clear when it comes to car sales their ads are designed to just get people in the door.

There just doesn’t seem to be many concrete rules when it comes to small print advertising. Sure, there are some vague things to follow, but the rules on advertising seem to allow a lot of interpretation. How you see an advertisement might be something different from how another person views one.

To me, with just a few examples in this article, it is clear that advertisers are not immediately truthful and transparent on their advertisements. I understand that there can be a lot of details a small ad can’t cover, but often small print is only there to deceive someone. At least this is the way I view it.

What are your views on advertisers and the tricks they play?


2 thoughts on “Fine Print Advertising – Is it Deceptive and Misleading?”

  1. Great idea. The problem I find with even the television sometimes is they make the print so small. It’s also just an insult on how fast the advertiser sometimes talks through all of the disclaimers. How can anyone understand them. This is particularly the case with all of the drug makers and pharma companies.

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