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Fine print & us
Malaysia’s Petronas Towers and (below) a diamond ring: Be careful when you book travel packages or ‘win’ a piece of jewellery. Often the fine print has hard-to-read conditions which mean you have to shell out more than you bargained for

For some it is informative, for others it is irritating. Some find it enlightening while many swear by its deceptive nature. It’s the fine print — that which is preceded by an asterisk, legends such as the widespread “conditions apply”, “offer valid till stocks last”, or “scheme available for a limited period only”. Call it fine print, small print or “mouse” print — it is inevitable in most advertising messages today. And its effect on the modern, enlightened consumer is pronounced.

SEBI (Securities and Exchange Board of India) in its 2003 guidelines lays down the rules of fine print vis-a-vis mutual funds. “In advertisements through audio-visual media like television, a statement ‘Mutual Fund investments are subject to market risks, read the offer document carefully before investing’ shall be displayed on the screen for at least two seconds, in a clearly legible font-size covering at least 80% of the total screen space and accompanied by a voice-over reiteration. The remaining 20% space can be used for the name of the mutual fund or logo or name of scheme, etc,” the circular says.

“Advertisements through audio media like radio, cassettes, CDs etc shall also read the above statement in a way that is easily understandable to the listeners.” For print, “the above statement shall be displayed in black letters of at least 8 inches height or covering 10% of the display area, on white background. The compliance officers shall ensure that the statement appearing in such advertisements are in legible font.”

“We are governed by strict SEBI guidelines which make it imperative for us to mention the risk factors involved in mutual funds at the end of every ad,” says a mutual fund company official. But everyone knows how the voiceover rushes through the lines “Mutual funds are subject to market risks…” despite the regulation. And there is doubt how many read the fine print. Of mutual funds ads, or of other ads.

For one great advantage of most fine print is that it’s very fine, and sometimes very long. It keeps people from reading it. Which helps the advertiser to promise so much more in large print, only to burst the bubble in small lettering. From cellular service providers to credit card companies, from mutual funds to mobile phones — everyone does it.

It’s a strategy. “Fine print is a tool used by advertisers to safeguard against a ‘what if’ situation — a situation in which a general consumer may turn around and blame the advertiser for promising much more in the body copy of the ad than what he has been able to deliver,” says Amitava Majumder, managing director, Mileage Advertising Services.

FINE-PRINT FRUSTRATION

Many are complaining of fine-print frustration. “I had booked a package for two for a Singapore-Malaysia trip last winter. While the ads promised the entire trip at a particular amount, I was asked to cough up a lot more when I reached there. The travel agency got away citing the ‘conditions apply’ clause in the ad,” fumes banker Indranil Dasgupta.

Not only snazzy holidays abroad — fine print affects even gifts. “Recently, I participated in a contest and was delighted when I won a diamond ring as first prize. It was only when I went to claim my gift that I realised that the contest came with the clause that I would get the ring only if I bought jewellery worth Rs 20,000. I was very angry and disappointed,” says homemaker Ritu Sahni.

Direct marketing ads come with coupons, which are bound to have a substantial amount of fine print. The hike in home loan interests, mentioned in the copious fine print from the bank, often catches the EMI-payer unawares.

“I am extremely wary of the so-called lifetime free credit cards. It is only later that you realise that the card is actually not free. Point it out to the credit card company and they will show you the ‘conditions apply’ element in their brochures. The same holds true for the interest rates of loans found to increase suddenly, but always have a fine print rider acting as justification,”says software engineer Kingshuk Mukherjee.

ASTERISK ALARM

Fine print also forms an integral part of surrogate alcohol advertising. A print ad will scream the name of a particular brand of alcohol and there will be an asterisk at the bottom accompanied by fine print stating that it is only talking about cassettes and CDs. “The use of fine print in alcohol advertising is as critical as in any other industry,” says Hirak Dasgupta, area manager, marketing, Bacardi-Martini India Limited.

No wonder there is widespread fear of the asterisk. “My first impression when I see those small, barely legible letters at the end of an ad is that the consumer is being taken for a ride yet again. Especially the ones that scream out ‘Sale’ and then have an asterisk at the bottom with the words ‘up to 10%’,” says media professional Arundhati Ghosh.

A buyer keeps an eye out for the “hidden message”. Especially those that tend to promise a lot. “Even if the ‘conditions apply’ bit is not mentioned in an ad that seems to be promising too much, people tend to ask if there is a hidden message somewhere,” says radio jockey Rehan Waris.

The ad army also concedes that the asterisk is notorious. “The fine print, with over exposure, has conditioned the consumer to assume that there must be a catch somewhere in the ad,” says Anurag Hira, executive creative director, Bates David Enterprise. “The asterisk has become the 27th character of the marketing alphabet. It appears next to the big words with the big claims, but the companion fine print somehow never gets into the ad,” says Hira, who considers fine print a “disturbing trend” in marketing.

Certain instances, certain brands and certain categories do justify fine print. “When one is giving out freebies, it is impossible for the advertiser to know the outcome of the scheme offered. It therefore becomes imperative to mention in fine print that the offer is valid till the stocks last,” says Mileage’s Majumder. The fact that not everything pertaining to a particular product can be contained in a single ad also makes the fine print necessary.

Most advertising agencies claim that they try to impress upon their clients the need for larger fonts to be used in fine print. “Statutory warnings and disclaimers should not be in 5 point or 6 point fonts,” feels Mumbai-based advertising professional Preeti Natarajan-Paul.

But the compulsions of business remain. And Xerox recently announced the invention of a printing technology so advanced that it can render characters 1/100th of an inch on paper. We hope no advertisers are reading this.

(Have you been a victim of fine print' Tell t2@abpmail.com)

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