Feb. 21, 2006 at 11:00 AM ET
Given the kinds of topics covered here, The Red Tape Chronicles could easily have alternate names. Like these: "Fine Print Chronicles," "Small Print Chronicles" or "Asterisk Chronicles."
There are just so many stories about consumers getting screwed because they didn't read the small print. And every time I do one of these stories, like last week's story about the problems with "90 days same as cash" deals at electronics stores, a debate rages among those who take the time to leave comments on the blog.
Whose fault is it when consumers don't read or misunderstand fine print? After all, aren't we all personally responsible for what we sign? It’s a fair question. So recently I've set about investigating the world of fine print.
My reporting began on Highway 522 in a Seattle suburb. I spotted a billboard with the words "Free Internet Bill Pay" in enormous, 20-foot letters.
Actually, I left something out. It really read, "Free Internet Bill Pay*"
I don't know how fast you read, but perhaps you missed that asterisk as your eyes flew by that paragraph. I can tell you that at 50 miles per hour, a lot of people miss the asterisk when they fly by on Highway 522. But being sensitized to asterisks now, I spotted it. And I decided to investigate. I hit the brakes hard, made a legal U-turn, and circled back to have a look at the billboard again.
I passed the board, did another U-turn, and pulled over to the shoulder for a closer look. From the highway, I could see there was a blurb of text at the bottom of the sign. But even at a standstill, it was far too small to read from my vantage point.
Fortunately, I have a pickup truck, so I was able to drive across the highway, yet again, and ramble over near the foot of the sign stanchion at the side of the road for a closer look.
But even that didn't work. Now, because of my close-in angle, the platform under the billboard that supports the lights blocked off the bottom third of the sign. I could still read "Free Internet Bill Pay*" well enough. But I couldn't possibly see what the asterisk indicated.
Again, I felt glad to have a pickup truck, and I refused to be deterred. I dropped the lift-gate, climbed into the bed, then up onto the roof of my cab. With that improved angle, I was able to see the important terms and conditions of this bank's offer.
"*See banker for details."
Now I am a big believer in personal responsibility. The answer is, yes, we are all responsible for what we sign. In fact, as you can see, I do think people should be responsible for going to some lengths to find the devil in the details when they are making purchases or signing contracts.
But cheating is cheating. Misleading is misleading. Obfuscating is obfuscating. None of that philosophical personal responsibility talk should be used as a rationalization to allow companies to do things they know will mislead many people. Consumers should never have to climb on the roof of a truck to read the fine print. It’s time to draw the line somewhere. It's time to call a spade a spade.
There's fine print, and there's minuscule print
So, here's a spade. The other day I saw an offer from Comcast for cable, Internet and phone service. Get all three for less than $85 a month, the mailed postcard read on the front. On the back, the deals were split out with more detail -- $30 for cable, $30 for telephone, $25 for Internet. In a font size that was about one-eighth the size, the company included the phrase "month for 3 months" next to each price. OK, that would tip most people off that that the price is just a tease, and it will go up after an initial period.
The question is, what's the real price? What happens after three months? Finding that was much harder than climbing onto the roof of my truck.
The Comcast postcard is 5 inches tall and 11 inches wide. Below the price listing I just mentioned, running all the way across the bottom half-inch of the card, is what could only be described as minuscule print. Fine print implies it can be read. Minuscule print, on the other hand, could easily be mistaken for dirt smudges. Only with the aid of modern technology could this typeface be printed on the card.
I have better than average eyesight; I could not read it. The font size couldn't be larger than 2 points; and that might be generous. But that’s not the only reason it’s unreadable.
The words run across the entire 11-inch card. At that font size, that means there were 63 words on a single line of text, an impossible amount to follow. For comparison purposes, I picked up the nearest book and counted a line of text. It had 12 words on it. Reading across a line of text is something designers call "tracking." Poor designs make tracking very hard, and readers tend to give up when they have to track too far. I can tell you that I still have not read this Comcast paragraph of text because I physically cannot track that long. It was hard enough just counting the words on a single line. That alone gave me a pretty good headache.
The quest continues
So, to find out the true price of the service, I had to randomly hunt around this sea of text. I did find some important information using this method, like this: "Additional monthly charge of $10 will apply for customers who do not qualify for multi-product discount." And this: "Equipment (including cable modem) is required and unless specifically included in offer, must be rented at Comcast's standard rates or purchased at retail."
Then, after a bit more looking, I spotted the information I needed. Kind of.
"AFTER PROMOTIONAL PERIOD REGULAR MONTHLY RATES APPLY."
And that was it. What those monthly rates are -- I have no idea. They are not on the card.
I will give Comcast this; that monthly rate notice is in all caps. One can only imagine that someone inside the firm's promotion department had a moment of conscience about the 2-point font thing. But not enough to actually say on the postcard the ONLY INFORMATION THAT ACTUALLY MATTERS TO CONSUMERS. That being, how much Comcast's services really cost.
I will continue to investigate this question of whose fault it is when consumers don't read the fine print. In fact, I will go purchase a magnifying glass for that very purpose. But early results seem to indicate that it's not always consumers' fault when they don't understand all the conditions of the contracts they sign. They’d also suggest corporations are stretching the boundaries of fairness very far, and they have little fear of censure.
I'd invite those who think otherwise to look around at the offers they receive in the mail, or to slow down and look at a few billboards on the way home from work tonight.
In the meantime, if you have a few of your own egregious examples of fine print or asterisk details, feel free to post them here.