Weasel words, prevarication, contradictions, legalese and qualifications are the order of the day in advertising disclaimers. Scott G dives into the subject and a great time is guaranteed for all! (Guaranty not valid in this galaxy. No diving has taken place.)
Reading these words constitutes your agreement to send Scott G two hundred dollars. There. You can’t say we tried to bury the message in tiny lettering hidden on the back of a form. It was the first line of the article. You can’t claim we attempted to make it difficult to read. The type is the same size and color as the rest of the article text. And you certainly can’t claim we used convoluted language. It was a nice, simple, straightforward, 13-word sentence.
Oh, wait. For those of you whose minds have been dimmed from watching reality TV, here it is without words of more than one syllable: If you read this, you must send Scott G two C-notes.
Okay, the subject is disclaimers. Have you heard or seen an ad where the primary message seems to be contradicted by a disclaimer? You have? Really? I’m amazed. (No actual amazement has occurred.)
We all have experienced this countless times. One of most common occurrences is in automobile ads that mention gasoline consumption. After claiming some gas guzzler gets thirty miles per gallon on the highway, the small type tells you to “Use mileage figures for comparison.” Sure, but comparison with what? The fuel efficiency estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are not based on driving the vehicles, but on computer projections. So your comparison will be with other computer estimates.
“Your mileage may differ,” continues the disclaimer. Yes indeed, because EPA estimates tend to be off by 15% in favor of making the vehicles seem more fuel efficient. They are not fully operative in the real world. You know, that place where we actually drive.
Some other disclaimers are used so often that our minds are almost immune to them, like these three:
“Part of this nutritious breakfast” adorns every print ad, direct mail piece and TV commercial for cereal. That’s because we consumers are so dumb that we might think the freshly sliced fruit, hot buttered toast, and chilled glass of orange juice came in the box with the sugar-encrusted oat bran flakes.
“Product not shown actual size.” Very important because we’re all so stupid that we might believe the hamburgers sold at our local grill are roughly twice the size of Teddy Roosevelt’s face on the side of Mt. Rushmore.
“Professional driver on closed course” or words to that effect appear in every TV spot that shows a vehicle being driven at speeds that would qualify you on the NASCAR circuit. Yup, without that disclaimer we would all believe the 6,000 pound truck can move so fast it creates a jet stream in its wake and rips dresses off women who are admiring the vehicle from the sidewalk.
DOLLARS AND NON-CENTS
Whenever ads mention low finance rates, the disclaimers start getting convoluted. “Only 5% down!” scream the ads. “Down payment requirements vary based upon myriad factors that all add up to mean that you will be giving us ten percent down or paying a shipload of interest in the latter part of the pay cycle” says the disclaimer, but in lawyerly words.
LONG, LONGER, LONGEST
There are several candidates for the most complex disclaimers. A rental car form, for example. Or all those contracts you sign when obtaining a mortgage. Or those online statements where you click “I agree” when signing up for a new download or to join a social network like MySpace or TagWorld.
But nobody seems to get as creatively legalistic as the pharmaceutical companies. In print ads, they can fill a full page with solid type explaining possible side effects, reasons to avoid taking the drug, and how they don’t want to be held liable in case you take the medication and it somehow, well, fails to medicate and instead screws you up. More so than you are already, I mean. No offence, but yeah, I’m talking to you.
And me, too. In fact, I’m talking to all of us who put up with this sort of nonsense. We routinely accept ads that contain a couple positive statements for a medication followed by a list of potential ailments, often grouped according to where and how you can be damaged. After reading a sampling of pharmaceutical company ads, the problem areas appear to be cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, metabolic, musculoskeletal, psychiatric, reproductive, respiratory, and visual. Among others.
Oh, and for those items they may have left out, there is sometimes an interesting catch-all category called “body as a whole,” which lets them warn you about back pain, chest pain, malaise, fatigue, flu-like symptoms, and rigors. Yes, that’s right: rigors. As in “Grandma’s got a touch of the rigors.”
Much has been made of the spoken words of warning in one of the ads for erectile dysfunction medication, something about “consult a physician if your erection lasts longer than four hours.” But at least the drug is doing what you asked it to do. Most of the time, the disclaimers do exactly what their name implies: disavow the claim.
HARMING YOU, HARMING ME.
Here’s the thing: if your ad says that your product “helps digestion” at one point and then denies it in the fine print, you shouldn’t be doing the ad. If your ad claims to help heal people in any way and then mentions four dozen possible side effects that are worse than the ailment itself, then you shouldn’t be doing the ad. If your ad says you get a certain payment structure and then rescinds it in the disclaimer, you shouldn’t be doing the ad.
A great many ads with disclaimers are misleading and they undercut the credibility of all advertising. This just makes our jobs more difficult. It also knocks our profession a couple rungs lower on the list of people not trusted by the public (we typically rank right down there with politicians and used car salesmen).
So, on behalf of consumers and professionals in advertising and marketing, let’s make claims we can back up, not claims that must be disclaimed.
Thanks for reading my rant. Now, please read all the articles in my “Communication Nation” column. Satisfaction guaranteed! Money-back offer! Painless prose! One size fits all! (No guarantee is implied or warranted. Store credit only offered at our New Mexico factory outlet location. Some syntax may hurt your brain. Adequate fit assumes you’re either a child’s size two or a mutant elephant.)