Saturday, August 14, 2010

Ban The Asterisk!

According to polls, increasing numbers of Americans do not trust our leaders. I have not seen any polls measuring trust in advertising, but if public confidence in ads is not way down it probably should be. To see why, we need only consider the asterisks (**) so often encountered in commercials.

Deceptive advertising is nothing new. Otherwise, why would we need the Federal Trade Commission? I well remember my first youthful encounter with a deceptive ad. Efforts (pre-transistor) to miniaturize radios fascinated me. An outfit advertised a kit for a “pocket radio” which measured only 2 by 4 inches. I ordered it and it was true that the radio was 2 inches wide and 4 inches high. But it was also 4 inches deep, a fact the seller neglected to disclose and I hadn’t noticed. Not being a kangaroo, I couldn’t get the thing in my pocket. Since then I have read ads more carefully and taken them with a grain of salt.

I now put less and less salt on my food, but I find myself needing a lot more of it when coping with ads. There are the ads for TV cable, internet, or phone service at amazingly low prices. The asterisk points to a statement, in exceedingly small type: “for 6 months.” You must sign a contract for a lot more than 6 months to get this price, and they don’t bother to say what the price will be then.

Perhaps these guys figure if it is ok for banks to push adjustable rate mortgages on folks, thereby subjecting people to increased risk of bankruptcy when low initial interest rates inevitably skyrocket, it is ok to quote misleading initial prices for lower cost items.

Or how about the furniture store offering wonderful low prices, free delivery, delayed payment, etc., but with the asterisk pointing to a message which flashes briefly across the bottom of the TV screen in very small and blurry type: “minimum purchase $2999”!

Then there are the dentists offering mouthfuls of implanted teeth in one day. The asterisk points to small, blurred, fleeting type at the bottom of the screen: “after initial workup.”

And we all know about the airline fares, in big type, followed by the usual asterisk pointing to the fact that this price is for one-way but you must buy a round trip, and that taxes and fees are on top of all this.

The most ridiculous ad I have encountered offered subscriptions to The New Yorker for a very good price. I almost sent off my money before I noticed the asterisk pointing to the words: “plus postage and handling.”

Ads like these help create a climate of general mistrust and suspicion. They somehow slip through the Federal Trade Commission nets, and crafting laws to prohibit them might be very difficult.

Absent law, there is something we can all do to discourage businesses from putting asterisks in their ads: we can resolve to have nothing to do with businesses which use asterisks.

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