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Fine print

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Fine print, small print, or "mouseprint" is less noticeable print smaller than the more obvious larger print it accompanies that advertises or otherwise describes or partially describes a commercial product or service. The larger print that is used in conjunction with fine print is ingenuously used by the merchant in effect to deceive the consumer into believing the offer is more advantageous than it really is, via a legal technicality
Legal technicality
The term legal technicality is a casual or colloquial phrase referring to a technical aspect of law. The phrase is not a term of art in the law; it has no exact meaning, nor does it have a legal definition. It implies that that strict adherence to the letter of the law has prevented the spirit of...

 which requires full disclosure of all (even unfavorable) terms or conditions, but does not specify the manner (size, typeface, coloring, etc.) of disclosure.

Fine print often says the opposite of what the larger print says. For example, if the larger print says "pre-approved" the fine print will say "subject to approval." Especially in pharmaceutical advertisements, fine print may accompany a warning message, but this message is often neutralized by the more eye-catching positive images and pleasant background music (eye candy
Eye candy
Eye candy may refer to:*Attractiveness*Eye Candy , an album by Mis-Teeq*software "Eye Candy", a plugin for Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Fireworks that adds new filter effects*"Eye Candy", an episode of the animated series Happy Tree Friends...

). Sometimes, television advertisements will flash text fine print in camouflagic
Camouflage is a method of concealment that allows an otherwise visible animal, military vehicle, or other object to remain unnoticed, by blending with its environment. Examples include a leopard's spotted coat, the battledress of a modern soldier and a leaf-mimic butterfly...

 colors, and for notoriously brief periods of time, making it difficult for the viewer to read.

The use of fine print has become a standard method of advertising
Advertising is a form of communication used to persuade an audience to take some action with respect to products, ideas, or services. Most commonly, the desired result is to drive consumer behavior with respect to a commercial offering, although political and ideological advertising is also common...

 in certain industries, particularly those selling a higher-priced product or service, or a specialty item not found on the mainstream market, or involving a signed contract
A contract is an agreement entered into by two parties or more with the intention of creating a legal obligation, which may have elements in writing. Contracts can be made orally. The remedy for breach of contract can be "damages" or compensation of money. In equity, the remedy can be specific...

. The practice, for example, can be used to mislead the consumer in reference to an item's price, its value, or the nutritional content of a food product.

Industries often using fine print

The following industries are known to use varying sizes of print frequently in marketing their products or services:

In price deception

  • Banking, including credit cards
  • Telecommunication
    Telecommunication is the transmission of information over significant distances to communicate. In earlier times, telecommunications involved the use of visual signals, such as beacons, smoke signals, semaphore telegraphs, signal flags, and optical heliographs, or audio messages via coded...

    , and Internet
    The Internet is a global system of interconnected computer networks that use the standard Internet protocol suite to serve billions of users worldwide...

    • Example: "... for just 5 cents a minute! first 3 minutes."
    • Up to 20Mb Broadband for just $4.99 a month for the first 6 months.
  • Motor vehicle
    Motor vehicle
    A motor vehicle or road vehicle is a self-propelled wheeled vehicle that does not operate on rails, such as trains or trolleys. The vehicle propulsion is provided by an engine or motor, usually by an internal combustion engine, or an electric motor, or some combination of the two, such as hybrid...

  • Vehicle repair
    Automobile repair shop
    An automobile repair shop is a place where automobiles are repaired by auto mechanics and electricians.- Types :The automotive garage can be divided in so many category....

  • Insurance
    In law and economics, insurance is a form of risk management primarily used to hedge against the risk of a contingent, uncertain loss. Insurance is defined as the equitable transfer of the risk of a loss, from one entity to another, in exchange for payment. An insurer is a company selling the...

  • Travel
    Travel is the movement of people or objects between relatively distant geographical locations. 'Travel' can also include relatively short stays between successive movements.-Etymology:...

    , such as cruises
    Cruise ship
    A cruise ship or cruise liner is a passenger ship used for pleasure voyages, where the voyage itself and the ship's amenities are part of the experience, as well as the different destinations along the way...

  • Department store
    Department store
    A department store is a retail establishment which satisfies a wide range of the consumer's personal and residential durable goods product needs; and at the same time offering the consumer a choice of multiple merchandise lines, at variable price points, in all product categories...

    s. For example, Macy's
    Macy's is a U.S. chain of mid-to-high range department stores. In addition to its flagship Herald Square location in New York City, the company operates over 800 stores in the United States...

     has been criticized for offering a coupon that is said to be one of the worst forms of fine print ever seen. The coupon (Figure 1), which offers tremendous discounts, excludes virtually all brands sold at the store.

In product value deception

  • Diet products
    • For example, many ads have included effusive testimonials, dramatic before and after photos, and the small print "results not typical".
  • Mascara
    • For example, many mascara ads feature photos of models wearing false eyelashes, which are sometimes disclosed in fine print.

Controversial aspects

Fine print is controversial because of its deceptive nature. Its purpose is to make the consumer believe that the offer is really great. Though the real truth about the offer is "technically" available to the consumer in the smaller print of the advertisement—thus virtually ensuring plausible deniability
Plausible deniability
Plausible deniability is, at root, credible ability to deny a fact or allegation, or to deny previous knowledge of a fact. The term most often refers to the denial of blame in chains of command, where upper rungs quarantine the blame to the lower rungs, and the lower rungs are often inaccessible,...

 from claims of fraud
In criminal law, a fraud is an intentional deception made for personal gain or to damage another individual; the related adjective is fraudulent. The specific legal definition varies by legal jurisdiction. Fraud is a crime, and also a civil law violation...

—it is often designed to be overlooked. The unsuspecting customer, who can instantly see all the attractive aspects of the offer, will, due to natural impulsive behavior, time constraints, and/or personal need, generally not bother to learn the caveats, instead focusing on the positives of the deal.

Many offers, advertised in large print, only apply when certain conditions are met. In many cases, these conditions are difficult or nearly impossible to meet.

In many cases, the business states in fine print that it reserves the right to modify the terms of the contract at any time with little or no advance notice. This controversial practice is often seen in the banking and insurance industries. It is also widely abused in terms of use statements and privacy policies
Privacy policy
Privacy policy is a statement or a legal document that discloses some or all of the ways a party gathers, uses, discloses and manages a customer or client's data...

. However, in early 2009, the federal case of Harris v. Blockbuster, Inc. ruled that these "unilateral modification clauses" were illusory and, thus, unenforceable.

In some cases, the seller who uses this technique will engage in the practice of bait and switch
Bait and switch
Bait-and-switch is a form of fraud, most commonly used in retail sales but also applicable to other contexts. First, customers are "baited" by advertising for a product or service at a low price; second, the customers discover that the advertised good is not available and are "switched" to a...

. The customer will be told when ready to purchase that for one reason or another, they won't be eligible for the advertised offer, and will be coerced into one that is higher priced (see Hard sell
Hard sell
In advertising, a hard sell is an advertisement or campaign that uses a more direct, forceful, and overt sales message. This approach works in opposition to a soft sell....

). Reasons they be told may include his/her age, credit rating
Credit rating
A credit rating evaluates the credit worthiness of an issuer of specific types of debt, specifically, debt issued by a business enterprise such as a corporation or a government. It is an evaluation made by a credit rating agency of the debt issuers likelihood of default. Credit ratings are...

, size or location of residence, the type of vehicle s/he owns, the amount of prior business s/he has done with that company, or the variety of the item s/he wishes to purchase. Often when this occurs, the limitations that render him/her ineligible will apply to an overwhelming majority of consumers.

Very frequently, consumers, eager to obtain a product or service they have the dire need or wish for, or else that they have been coerced into obtaining, will sign their names on a binding contract. The consumer may be determined to be liable to the terms of the contract, stated only by the fine print, and an exit from these terms may be quite costly or impossible for the consumer.

Some examples of how consumers are deceived are as follows:
  • A credit card
    Credit card
    A credit card is a small plastic card issued to users as a system of payment. It allows its holder to buy goods and services based on the holder's promise to pay for these goods and services...

    , advertised with a 0% rate in large print, will offer this only for an introductory period of a few months. After that, the rate will be something like 19.95%, and may increase even more due to universal default
    Universal default
    Universal default is the term for a practice in the financial services industry in the United States for a particular lender to change the terms of a loan from the normal terms to the default terms Universal default is the term for a practice in the financial services industry in the United States...

  • A cell phone contract may require the subscriber to pay various fees that are originally unnoticed. The subscriber is bound to the contract for a specified period of time, and must pay a large amount to be freed. Additionally, the contract will automatically renew if not cancelled within a certain time frame upon its expiration, thereby further lengthening these terms.
  • A trip
    Tourism is travel for recreational, leisure or business purposes. The World Tourism Organization defines tourists as people "traveling to and staying in places outside their usual environment for not more than one consecutive year for leisure, business and other purposes".Tourism has become a...

    , frequently a cruise, will advertise in large print that the price is something attractive, such as $399 for seven days. In smaller print below, the words "per person, double occupancy" (often abbreviated) will be present. This alone will double the advertised offer, since even the solo traveler would be required to rent the room for the price of two. The words "as low as" may also be hidden, for this low price applies only to the least attractive of offers. Other fees that will be mandatory for all or most, such as taxes, transportation to the cruise terminal, and activities on and off the ship, will be extra.
  • A car dealership
    Car dealership
    A car dealership or vehicle local distribution is a business that sells new or used cars at the retail level, based on a dealership contract with an automaker or its sales subsidiary. It employs automobile salespeople to do the selling...

     may advertise a car for sale at far below its market value
    Market value
    Market value is the price at which an asset would trade in a competitive auction setting. Market value is often used interchangeably with open market value, fair value or fair market value, although these terms have distinct definitions in different standards, and may differ in some...

     in large print. Above the "final price" in the largest numbers of all, the real price will be listed at the top in small print. Below that will be several deductions, many of which most customers can possibly obtain, such as military membership, or a trade-in. Many of these offers also apply only to a particular model number, and exclude the remainder of the dealer's inventory.
  • Auto repair shops frequently advertise either with coupon
    In marketing, a coupon is a ticket or document that can be exchanged for a financial discount or rebate when purchasing a product. Customarily, coupons are issued by manufacturers of consumer packaged goods or by retailers, to be used in retail stores as a part of sales promotions...

    s or large signs outside their businesses for common maintenance and repair services, such as oil changes, tune-ups, and tires. These ads fail to mention factors that may raise that price, such as fees and add-ons for various services, mechanics telling customers more costly repairs are necessary or else the vehicle may be further damaged, or the price being for each individual part (such as a wheel), where the vehicle has several of that part all needing the service, and thereby multiplying the cost by that number. Many ads will also state in fine print "most cars," but in reality, most cars, including that of the customer seeking the service, will be excluded.
  • Warranties
    In business and legal transactions, a warranty is an assurance by one party to the other party that specific facts or conditions are true or will happen; the other party is permitted to rely on that assurance and seek some type of remedy if it is not true or followed.In real estate transactions, a...

    : The warranties for many products, such as automobiles, are offered or sold with the promise that they will cover a large number of scenarios, should they occur, and often routine maintenance. But they are accompanied by fine print to exclude virtually all repairs that will likely be needed. The coverage for some routine maintenance may also be a lure in which the service center will intentionally damage the vehicle, unknown to its owner, thereby forcing the owner to return for additional costly repairs in the future.
  • Insurance
    In law and economics, insurance is a form of risk management primarily used to hedge against the risk of a contingent, uncertain loss. Insurance is defined as the equitable transfer of the risk of a loss, from one entity to another, in exchange for payment. An insurer is a company selling the...

     policies: Particularly health
    Health insurance
    Health insurance is insurance against the risk of incurring medical expenses among individuals. By estimating the overall risk of health care expenses among a targeted group, an insurer can develop a routine finance structure, such as a monthly premium or payroll tax, to ensure that money is...

     and life insurance
    Life insurance
    Life insurance is a contract between an insurance policy holder and an insurer, where the insurer promises to pay a designated beneficiary a sum of money upon the death of the insured person. Depending on the contract, other events such as terminal illness or critical illness may also trigger...

     will exclude a good deal of scenarios in which one would normally file a claim. For example, life insurance will not normally cover suicide
    Suicide is the act of intentionally causing one's own death. Suicide is often committed out of despair or attributed to some underlying mental disorder, such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, alcoholism, or drug abuse...

    s, and homeowners' insurance will not normally cover arson
    Arson is the crime of intentionally or maliciously setting fire to structures or wildland areas. It may be distinguished from other causes such as spontaneous combustion and natural wildfires...

  • Rebate
    Rebate can refer to:* Rebate or rabbet, a woodworking term for a groove* Film rebate, the term for the border around photographic film- Money :* Rebate , a type of sales promotion used in marketing* Tax rebate, a reduction in taxation demanded...

    s: Many products are advertised with a price printed in large numbers. However, a higher price is printed above in much smaller numbers, and the large-print price is only given after a rebate
    Rebate can refer to:* Rebate or rabbet, a woodworking term for a groove* Film rebate, the term for the border around photographic film- Money :* Rebate , a type of sales promotion used in marketing* Tax rebate, a reduction in taxation demanded...

    . Initially, the customer must first pay the high price. In order for the rebate to be redeemed, the customer must then follow a set of instructions. In some cases, meeting all the requirements necessary in order to obtain the rebate may be difficult, and as a result, many rebates are denied.
  • Infomercial
    Infomercials are direct response television commercials which generally include a phone number or website. There are long-form infomercials, which are typically between 15 and 30 minutes in length, and short-form infomercials, which are typically 30 seconds to 120 seconds in length. Infomercials...

     products: These come in all shapes and sizes, from wealth packages to cooking utensils. Often, however, these companies either load their sales with tons of fine print, or simply do not abide by their promises (the latter is technically illegal, but many are not worried because the amount they make from ripping people off usually makes up for the amount of fines they pay to the government).

Fine print on TV and other video media

A common practice has been to use fine print in advertising on television
Television advertisement
A television advertisement or television commercial, often just commercial, advert, ad, or ad-film – is a span of television programming produced and paid for by an organization that conveys a message, typically one intended to market a product...

. In such a case, the fine print is displayed at the bottom of the screen in a manner where it is not noticeable to many viewers, or is displayed for such a short time that no one has the time to read the entire paragraph without an artificial means of stopping the commercial, i.e. record it or freeze frame it, such as with a digital video recorder
Digital video recorder
A digital video recorder , sometimes referred to by the merchandising term personal video recorder , is a consumer electronics device or application software that records video in a digital format to a disk drive, USB flash drive, SD memory card or other local or networked mass storage device...

 (DVR), in order to read it. The attention is drawn away from this little section by the more eye-catching or large print description of the offer, which alone is untrue.

Fine print is often illegible, e.g., when a TV picture is noisy, low-resolution, or the viewer's sight is impaired. Banking offers have been displayed on video billboards by highways that are unreadable by passing drivers.

Verbal fine print

Some TV
Television advertisement
A television advertisement or television commercial, often just commercial, advert, ad, or ad-film – is a span of television programming produced and paid for by an organization that conveys a message, typically one intended to market a product...

 and radio commercial
Radio commercial
Commercial radio stations make most of their revenue selling “airtime” to advertisers. Of total media expenditures, radio accounts for 6.9%. Radio advertisements or “spots” are available when a business or service provides valuable consideration, usually cash, in exchange for the station airing...

s are concluded with "fast talking", which is barely audible or comprehensible to most. While it is this very message that states all necessary disclaimer
A disclaimer is generally any statement intended to specify or delimit the scope of rights and obligations that may be exercised and enforced by parties in a legally recognized relationship...

s and exceptions to the advertisement, it is stated too fast for the viewer or listener to comprehend. This is often coupled with pleasant background music and positive images, which in turn takes the consumer's focus off of the disclaimer.

Fighting fine print

With proper education, consumers can be warned to read the fine print and to see the red flags on an offer that is too good to be true, even and especially when it is the widespread industry practice.

Many consumer advocates are active in lobbying for laws to limit the rights of an advertiser to use fine print to hide the truth, and to expand rights to consumers who fall victim to fine print. Due to free speech that is granted to advertisers, passing such laws in the United States has proven to be difficult. Many such laws that have successfully been passed have ultimately been overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. See also Corporate personhood debate.

Credit cards

Credit card issuers are among the largest of those who have won the fine print battle against the consumer. Consumer advocates have widely criticized the credit card industry for its increasing ruthlessness in its practices, which allow the banks seemingly unlimited rights to charge whatever fees they wish, to rewrite the terms and conditions faced by the consumer at will, and to not be challenged by the consumer in their practices. The consumer who initially obtained the card was inevitably drawn by the large print, which was accompanied by pages of fine print few are likely to read in full or to understand. During the 1990s, two laws against such practices were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, and these rulings are said to have opened the floodgates for even more ruthless practices.


Several states have considered laws that would require retailers to provide advertised rebates to customers at the time of the purchase with no strings attached. These laws have been widely opposed by corporations, and are yet to have passed in any states.


Advertising by conventional banks is relatively highly regulated, requiring disclosures that generally are made, but appear in small print. In some cases, the minimum size of any small print is regulated, such as credit card advertising/application Schumer's_box disclosure requirements. One bank offered non-FDIC-insured CDs yielding 10% in letters almost 3" high, while the small print 1/16" high disclosed the lack of insurance.

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