Fine print

Fine print

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.[1] 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 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." [2] 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). Sometimes, television advertisements will flash text fine print in camouflagic 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 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. 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.[3]


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, and Internet services
    • 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 sales
  • Vehicle repair services
  • Insurance
  • Travel, such as cruises
  • Department stores. For example, Macy's has been criticized for offering a coupon that is said to be one of the worst forms of fine print ever seen.[4] The coupon (Figure 1), which offers tremendous discounts, excludes virtually all brands sold at the store.
    Figure 1

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 from claims of fraud—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.[2]

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.[citation needed] It is also widely abused in terms of use statements and privacy policies. However, in early 2009, the federal case of Harris v. Blockbuster, Inc. ruled that these "unilateral modification clauses" were illusory and, thus, unenforceable.[5]

In some cases, the seller who uses this technique will engage in the practice of bait and switch. 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). Reasons they be told may include his/her age, credit rating, 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, 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.[6]
  • 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, 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.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]
  • A car dealership may advertise a car for sale at far below its market value 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.[citation needed]
  • Auto repair shops frequently advertise either with coupons 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.[citation needed]
  • Warranties: 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.[citation needed]
  • Insurance policies: Particularly health and life insurance will exclude a good deal of scenarios in which one would normally file a claim. For example, life insurance will not normally cover suicides, and homeowners' insurance will not normally cover arson.
  • Rebates: 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. 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.[7]
  • Infomercial 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. 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 (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. [8]

Verbal fine print

Some TV and radio commercials are concluded with "fast talking", which is barely audible or comprehensible to most. While it is this very message that states all necessary disclaimers 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[citation needed].

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[which?] 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.[9]


Several states[which?] have considered laws that would require retailers to provide advertised rebates to customers at the time of the purchase with no strings attached.[citation needed] These laws have been widely opposed by corporations,[who?] 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.[10]

See also


External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • fine print — n: a part of an agreement or document spelling out restrictions or limitations often in small type or obscure language Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of Law. Merriam Webster. 1996. fine print …   Law dictionary

  • fine print — fine print, adj. /fuyn/ 1. printed matter in small sized type. 2. the detailed wording of a contract, lease, insurance policy, or the like, often set in type smaller than the main body of the document and including general restrictions or… …   Universalium

  • fine print — fine′ print′ [[t]faɪn[/t]] n. the detailed wording of a contract, lease, or the like, often in type smaller than the main body of the document and including restrictions or qualifications that could be considered disadvantageous Also called small …   From formal English to slang

  • fine print — n [U] ↑small print …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • fine print — noun uncount important details of an agreement that are usually printed in very small letters: SMALL PRINT …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • fine print — n. 1. a section of a document, as a contract, warranty, or advertisement, in smaller print than the main body: although it includes additional conditions, limits, etc., this section may not be read carefully because it is typically terse or in… …   English World dictionary

  • fine print — noun 1. the part of a contract that contains reservations and qualifications that are often printed in small type don t sign a contract without reading the fine print • Syn: ↑small print • Hypernyms: ↑reservation, ↑qualification • Part Holonyms:… …   Useful english dictionary

  • Fine Print — Contract terms and conditions, disclosures or other important information that are not included in the main body of a document, but in footnotes or a supplemental document. Reading and understanding the fine print is essential when entering into… …   Investment dictionary

  • fine print — /faɪn ˈprɪnt/ (say fuyn print) noun the small print in a contract, etc., establishing conditions and matters of detail: *The Blues overcame the salary cap problem by examining the fine print and planning accordingly. –herald, 1987 …  

  • fine print — noun The details, restrictions, terms, or conditions, especially of a contract, often printed in very small type. Before signing up for such an offer, be sure to read the fine print carefully. Syn: small print …   Wiktionary

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