Fineprint footnotes: Kryptonite for advertisers?

Remember the character from the Superman comic books who was the exact opposite of the Man of Steel?  He said no when he meant yes, his alter ego went by the name "Kent Clark," and was part of the Injustice League of America.  It made for fun reading, but you wouldn’t want him crafting your ad claims.

According to the FTC’s lawsuit against DR Phone Communications, promotional materials for the company’s long distance calling cards said one thing — but often meant the opposite.  For example, eye-catching text on posters for calling cards to locations around the world touted “NO CONNECTION FEE.”  But small print on the bottom of the poster read:  "Surcharges and fees will affect actual number of minutes delivered.  International calls made to cellular phones and calls via toll free numbers are billed at higher rates. Rates and fees are subject to change without notice. Weekly maintenance fee and network fee per call may apply. A payphone surcharge applies per call. Card has no cash value and is not-refundable. Card is valid for 3 months after first use."

In other words, by “No Fees,” what the defendants actually meant was “Lots of Fees.”

The FTC alleges that prominent claims about how much talk time buyers would get were similarly false.  According to court papers, of the 169 cards the FTC bought and tested, every single one of them delivered fewer than the number of advertised minutes.  The worst of the lot delivered less than 1% of the advertised minutes.  The FTC charged that on average, the cards delivered only about 40% of the advertised time.

Pending a trial in federal court, the defendants have temporarily agreed to stop making claims the FTC says are deceptive.  But savvy marketers won’t wait until there’s a final resolution in the case to check their own promotional materials.  Buyers shouldn't need Superman's x-ray vision to figure out the terms of the deal.  Dense blocks of text and fineprint footnotes are insufficient to undo the promises advertisers make in splashy headlines.

 

3 Comments

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This is a really good point and I enjoyed the post, but I'm going to confess that I'm actually just commenting because you have a privacy policy next to the form entry field. This is the sort of transparency that every government agency (and commercial entity) should have!

There's so many deceptive ads out there. Hopefully the FTC will win out. We need someone on our side!

I love your witty writing style!

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