Misleading tiny text trouble

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by ANDY PIERROTTI / KVUE News and photojournalist ERIN COKER

Bio | Email | Follow: @AndyP_KVUE

kvue.com

Posted on December 13, 2012 at 11:30 PM

Updated Friday, Dec 14 at 12:15 PM

You see it everywhere this time of year - on television, in newspapers and on the Internet. It seems advertisers pull out all of stops during the holidays to convince you to buy their products.

The ads typically use BIG print or font to lure you into BIG sales.

Not so fast says Erin Dufner, who monitors advertising for Austin's Better Business Bureau.

"Everybody really loses with deceptive advertising," explained Dufner.

With the help of the Better Business Bureau, the KVUE Defenders identified what the Bureau considers misleading advertising.

For example, a November Macy's newspaper ad used large text that screamed, “SALE FOR THREE DAYS; 20% to 50% OFF STOREWIDE.”

It sounds like a good deal, until you read the tiny text: “Excludes Everyday Values (EDV), specials, super buys, furniture, mattresses, floor coverings, rugs, electronic/electronics, cosmetics/fragrances, gift cards, jewelry trunk shows, previous purchases, special orders, selected license depts., special purchases, services, Macy's.com. Cannot be combined with any savings pass/coupon, extra discount or credit offer except opening a new Macy’s account.”

“So, not storewide," argued Jessica Liberty of Austin, after reviewing the ad.

The ad is similar to a Macy's ad ABC’s "20/20" highlighted in a story in the 1990s. “Hold on to your charge card, because down at the bottom there's a massive amount of fine print detailing all of the items not included in this everything sale," said the network reporter.

The BBB calls the more recent ad just as concerning.

When asked to explain the ad, Macy's responded to the KVUE Defenders in an email: "Macy's storewide sales feature broad savings across the departments throughout our store. For any of our sale events, we do clearly note that some exclusions apply to communicate specific products or brands that are not included in the sale offer."

The BBB uses its own form code advertising to identify misleading or confusing ads. Dufner says the BBB works with businesses to make sure advertising is truthful. She and her staff identify advertisements misleading sales almost daily. For instance, sale ads that do not have start or end dates, or ads that make big claims.

One ad the KVUE Defenders found claimed it was "America's number one fitness equipment retailer," but it doesn't offer any proof of the claim in the ad.

“Any advertiser should be prepared to substantiate any claim that they made at anytime and any of their advertising mediums," contends Dufner.

Dr. Gary Wilcox is an advertising professor at the University of Texas in Austin. He says the fine print protects advertisers more than consumers.

“Well, that's a legal requirement. Whether the consumer perceives that or not, and recognizes that information, is a totally different story," said Wilcox.

Dufner agrees, but adds that "just because it's not illegal, doesn't mean it's necessarily ethical." 

Sometimes though, misleading ads cross the legal line.

Dannon's Activia yogurt made these bold claims last year in its television commercials: “Activia, with bifidus regularis, helps regulate your digestive system in two weeks.”

When the Federal Trade Commission asked Dannon to show scientific proof its yogurt keeps you regular, it didn't have any.

The yogurt maker settled with the FTC for $21 million for deceptive advertising and agreed to drop its exaggerated health claims.

"We'd like to think in our business that we provide relevant truthful information to people about products, and sometimes companies don't do that," said Wilcox.

Click here for a list of the BBB’s code of advertising it asks businesses to follow.

Click here to see how to identify misleading advertising.

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