Reading disclaimers in TV ads takes quick eye work

March 24, 1993|By Martin Merzer | Martin Merzer,Knight-Ridder News Service

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. What's behind the new abundance of long and incomprehensible disclaimers in TV commercials and other advertisements? If you've seen an ad for a new car, a credit card, an air fare -- even an over-the-counter medication for stomach troubles, you know what we mean.

The answer: Lawyers and federal requirements, especially something called Regulation Z.

No requirement that you be able to actually read the ephemeral fine print and make some sense out of it. Just that it be there. lTC Think of it as the Fleeting Truth in Advertising Rule.

"We have to put those big ugly things there, even if nobody can read them," said Tere Zubizarreta, owner of Zubi Advertising of Miami. "It's pretty damn silly."

Bill Drier, president of McFarland and Drier, another South Florida ad agency, called it "the mandatory gobbledygook you see in mice type."

Said Mr. Drier: "You have to be a speed reader to figure it out."

Harold Lane, who teaches speed reading, said the average adult can read and fully understand about 150 words a minute.

Mr. Lane can manage 1,200 words a minute, but he's still too slow for the typical auto or credit card commercial.

"I can pick out key items," said Mr. Lane, director of the Reading-Learning Center of South Miami. "I'll settle for that."

Good thing too, if you consider the following segment of a TV commercial captured on videotape:

"Limited time rate of $169.00 for a 36 month closed-end lease of 1993 Sentra XE 4-Door, 5-Speed with Value Option Package, model 43153 available at participating Nissan dealers to qualified lessees through NMAC. Subject to availability. Rate based on $12,690.00 M.S.R.P. including destination charges, less $169.00 customer capital cost reduction down payment and less $869.62 required dealer capital cost reduction. Dealer participation may affect actual cost. Actual capitalized Cost of $12,001.38 includes a $350.00 non-refundable acquisition fee. Taxes, registration, title, insurance, options and locally required equipment not included in lease rate and may be payable on consummation."

Did you get all that? We didn't think so. But it's now on paper in the event you want to try again.

On TV, it was one of two blocks of information that flashed by in five seconds. The cited portion was on the screen for 2.7 seconds.

Using Mr. Lane's guideline of 150 words a minute, the average adult would have made it no farther than "Limited time rate of $169.00 for a."

So what's the point?

Douglas Wood, who specializes in advertising law, said advertisers are disclaiming all over the place to comply with Regulation Z, part of the federal Truth in Lending Law.

Under the regulation, when advertisers fire off a "trigger term" such as "monthly payment," "interest rate" or even "down payment," they are required to slam you with the full barrage of legal language at their command, Mr. Wood said.

During tough economic times like these, more advertisers stress prices, so they use more trigger terms and more frequently clutter up commercials with incomprehensible disclaimers.

Alas, someone in your federal government forgot to require thatconsumers be able to actually read the stuff.

Rules that were supposed to give consumers vital information are delivering only a haunting sense that more is going on than meets the eye, so to speak.

"Advertisers are under the impression that they are complying, but something is off the mark," said Mr. Wood, who works for a New York law firm. "Compliance means disclosure, and if it can't be read, it isn't being disclosed."

The new proliferation of disclaimers extends into all media and far beyond ads that feature prices. Nearly every ad has at least one.

FiberCon laxative: Use only as directed. A deal at Red Lobster seafood house: Limited time. Publishers Clearing House million-dollar sweepstakes: Paid $25,000 a year per million. Entries due by 4/15/93. No purchase necessary. Void where prohibited.

Advertising executives like Mr. Drier, particularly those in the creative end, hate nearly all disclaimers. They complain that the things consume time or space better used for selling you something.

But they said increased regulatory oversight and the fear of lawsuits from consumers leave them no choice.

So, you'll be seeing disclaimers a lot more in the future. If you look very, very closely.

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