Sep. 26, 2006 at 6:00 AM ET
There's small print, there's fine print, and then there's mouseprint.
Until a few weeks ago, I had never heard the term mouseprint. Silly me. It’s standard terminology in the marketing world. The name says it all. Mouseprint is legalese so small that it can only be read by someone the size of a mouse. Since English-speaking mice really are quite rare, you have to wonder how companies get away with it.
Now, there's a new Web site that's going to help you fight back. Consider it a magnifying glass for mouseprint.
I'm sure you've noticed this disturbing trend in marketing: The inverse relationship between the importance of the information and the size of the font used.
"Online trades as low as $9.95*" the advertisement screams. "With account balances of $1 million or more," it whispers. I call the asterisk the 27th letter on the American alphabet, it’s become so common.
I blame technology. Without laser printers capable of rendering print that's half-point size or smaller, mouse print would be impossible. We'd be stuck with, at worst, cat print or perhaps kitten print.
Alas, technology is hard to stop. Impressively, Xerox just announced printing technology so advanced it can render characters on paper that are 1/100th of an inch. The technology is supposed to be used to prevent counterfeiting, but imagine the fun marketing companies will have with it! Even literate mice won’t be able to help you with what might be called nano-print.
Perhaps its invention explains a disturbing trend that I call a “widowed asterisk.” The asterisk appears next to the big words with the big claims, but the companion fine print somehow never gets into the ad. I had assumed it was a convenient printing error; but perhaps this new, nano-print is the culprit.
A mouseprint magnifying glass
The small print landscape does look bleak for consumers, but take heart. Someone has invented a mouseprint magnifying glass.
Tireless consumer advocate Edgar Dworsky recently launched a new Web site named Mouseprint.org, where he's taking on the ever-more-absurd claims and disclaimers in the world of advertising.
If it weren't so sad, Mouseprint.org would be a laugh-riot.
Here's a taste: New England-area car dealers have taken to advertising new car prices so low you'd think Detroit was in the middle of some kind of financial crisis. A brand-new $21,000 car, for example, was recently listed in an ad for $9,500. How can they do that? Is it aggressive employee pricing? Some fabulous new rebate program?
Nope. The price assumes a $7,500 down payment on the car. Consider it a rebate, only you have to pay it.
This one's a bit tricky, so let me explain by example. Let's say you go to the store to buy a gallon of milk. You expect it to cost $3, but the sign on the shelf says $2. This, you figure, is your lucky day. But when you get to the checkout counter, the cashier asks you for a dollar before ringing up your purchase.
"You have to pay $1 to get the $2 price," she explains.
Is that clear? If it's not, you'd better catch on quick. Down-payment-reduced-pricing labels are all the rage around Boston, where Dworsky lives. Advertising is a game of copycat, so as soon as one retailer gets away with some crazy new scheme, the others follow suit. Who wants to be the last dealer advertising the actual price people will pay for a car?
Dworsky's site is full of such gems: The online broker’s claim that trades cost under $10 when the offer is actually limited to millionaires. Or the car manufacturer’s purchase satisfaction program, which allows consumers to return a new car within 30 days but charges fees that add up to $2,000 or more. Or the bank credit card that promises rebates of up to $250 each year – 3 cents at a time. Only customers who make 8,333 separate purchases every year (that’s 22.8 purchases every day of the year, including Christmas) can qualify for the maximum.
Dworsky spent nearly a decade working in the Massachusetts attorney general's office chasing down false advertising, so he knows the games advertisers play inside and out.
But it's sad a site like Mouseprint.org is necessary. After all, aren't there government agencies charged with enforcing truth in advertising rules?
'No one is watching'
"Clearly, no one is watching," Dworsky said. "It's not like they are suing anyone or collecting fines."
Dworsky notes that the Federal Trade Commission is charged with bringing national cases against misleading marketers, but only brings a handful of cases each year. Most state attorney general offices have marketing specialists in their office of consumer affairs, but their vigilance varies by state and most will only act on consumer complaints. The Better Business Bureau has a national advertising bureau, but its work generally consists of participating companies tattling on each other.
Of course, there is no such thing as prescreening of advertisements for fairness and accuracy. And you wouldn't want that -- it would stifle free speech. On the other hand, every schoolchild knows free speech is not an absolute right. You can't scream 'Fire!" in a crowded theater, and companies have no right to deceptive free speech.
You would imagine there are government officials out there who see the world like you and I do, who spot these obvious transgressions and do something about it before consumers get hurt. Some state offices do just that, Dworsky says.
"If I saw a problem, I would call up the director of advertising at retailer and say, 'What’s this claim?' 'Do you have substantiation?' I knew most of them by name," he said. There are still some states that proactively monitor ads, he said, but not nearly enough. For proof of that, simply open a newspaper or watch television. It seems that, in the world of advertising, just about anything goes.
There is something consumers can do about this sorry state of affairs, however.
Complaining to your state attorney general's office may be far more effective than you realize. No government agency will act on a single complaint. But you'd be surprised how few complaints can get the attention of your state's top cop.
"We had a list we called the 'Five or more list," Dworsky said. "If there were more than five complaints against a company, it made the list," he said. That didn't always lead to legal action, but the list did get the attention of the consumer practices people. Often, a simple phone from the attorney general’s office can work wonders. It can also stop copycats before they start.
Dworsky’s site now offers consumers a second place to complain. If you can't get your state's office to act against a misleading advertiser, you can at least embarrass the marketer by forwarding the small print to Dworsky's site. You'll get some satisfaction, and perhaps you'll keep another consumer from biting the cheese in one of those mouseprint traps.