Free! Lowest prices! Going out of business! These are enticing words when they appear in advertising, on store windows, packages and elsewhere. Store-wise shoppers have learned to be wary of such phrases. Sometimes they mean what they say. More often there's a catch.
Every business and profession has its own jargon, often designed to keep outsiders in the dark. Sometimes lawyers are accused of being the masters because so many terms have legal meanings you won't find in your desk dictionary. But, marketers and publicists are skillful, too, at using slippery language.
It was use of the term "free" that prompted the Federal Trade Commission to cite the book clubs some years ago. That's why you now get "bonus" books. If the sign says "lowest prices" it should be a signal to you to ask "compared to what?" and to shop around.
If your desk is like mine, even though it's still October, the stack of catalogs and direct mail offers already is more than two feet high. For many years, I have been reminding you that smart shoppers read labels, warranties and other product information. Be particularly cautious during the holiday season.
Richard Weiner is a New York communications specialist and an expert on advertising lingo that may be confusing or misleading to consumers. The artistry of direct mail is fascinating to him.
"Just about everyone with a mailbox has been informed countless times that he or she may be a winner of a million dollars," Weiner observes.
"Publishers Clearing House, Time Warner, Reader's Digest and other users of these sweepstakes promotions are legitimate companies and the prizes indeed are awarded. But your name on one of these computer-produced letters does not guarantee that you'll win anything," he says.
His book, "Webster's New World Dictionary of Media and Communications," defines 30,000 slang and technical terms used by advertisers and other marketing professionals. In its definition of "sweepstakes," Weiner's dictionary points out "to prevent infringement of lottery laws, commercial sweepstakes do not require entrants to purchase products or provide any monetary consideration."
Most consumers think their chances are increased if they order the magazine subscription or buy something, he says. The companies who conduct these promotions count on this reaction.
Some of your best bargains may be found at a "going out of business" sale, yet they frequently are fraudulent. Many cities require a special permit. "Lost our lease," "last days" and other window signs can be deceptive and sometimes are phony.
Caution is warranted throughout commerce, not just in retail stores or in dealing with mail order suppliers. Travelers recently were treated to amazingly low priced fares on major airlines. Like many sales, the bargains were legitimate, but you had to read the small print in the ads.
Excursion and other bargain fares generally are non-refundable. That means you cannot turn in the ticket for a refund and you probably will have to pay a penalty if your plans change. Other restrictions include days when the fares do not apply.
These and other restrictions usually are bunched together in a section at the bottom of the page and often look like paragraphs in insurance policies and other contracts.
Fortunately, many insurance companies, pressured by lawmakers, have simplified their policies and other documents. Most are now easier to understand. You still have to watch out for confusing language. I call this "bafflegab." Weiner observes that others call it "gobbledy-gook," a word coined by Congressman Maury Maverick, who said, "Perhaps I was thinking of the old bearded turkey gobbler back in Texas who was always gobbledy-gobbling and strutting with ludicrous pomposity. At the end of the gobble there was a sort of gook."
1990 Los Angeles Times Syndicate
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