Find truth in the fine print

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Q. Does the government monitor false advertising?

A. Yes. But there are limits to how much the Federal Trade Commission or state attorney general offices can do.

The FTC has been clear that "advertisers cannot use fine print to contradict other statements in an ad or to clear up misimpressions the ad would otherwise leave," according to the FTC's Division of Advertising Practice.

It has used the example of an ad for a diet product that claims "Lose 10 pounds in one week without dieting," with a fine-print statement "Diet and exercise required." The mouse print "is insufficient to remedy the deceptive claim in the ad," the FTC advises in a guide for small businesses.

The agency tends to focus on ads that make claims about health and safety — ABC-brand sunscreen reduces risk of skin cancer — and ads that consumers would have trouble evaluating for themselves — ABC gasoline reduces engine wear.

"There are so many misleading ads that use fine print that no government agency is going to be able to review all of them," Dworsky said. "You've got to be your own advertising watchdog."

Q. Are there other types of mouse print?

A. A cousin is downsizing, which is especially prominent in food items. A firm will keep the price of a product the same but change the number or ounces in the container, disclosed in small print.

Many brands have done it, but a recent one is Kellogg's Raisin Bran. The 15-ounce box now contains 13.7 ounces.

While the new and smaller volume of the product is typically identified on the label, Dworsky counts downsizing as deceptive.

"The problem with downsizing of products is it's done in a really sneaky way," he said.

"Manufacturers will tell you, 'We don't want to raise the price,'" Dworsky said. "But of course they're raising the price because the coffee is going to run out sooner or you're going to get fewer glasses of orange juice or fewer servings of ice cream."

The American Marketing Association advocates that members adhere to ethical norms, among which is "foster trust in the marketing system," according to the group's website. "This means striving for good faith and fair dealing…as well as avoiding deception in product design, pricing, communication and delivery of distribution."

But the AMA norm isn't the norm for many marketers, Dworsky said. "The truth tends to be in the fine print, not in the headline."

So, keep handy the spectacles and magnifying glass.

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