Feb 17

The wacky world of legal disclaimers

Seriously — an article about legal type in advertising?

Granted, the topic may seem a bit dry. But hang with me. Those microscopic lines of text often have their own sordid backstory, filled with intrigue, deception and blatant bending of the rules.

Even Apple gets into the act.

So, where to begin? Exhibit A, above, is taken from a Rate.com commercial now running incessantly on CNN.

We can all agree it contains a boatload of legal type, and that no earthly being will ever read more than a few words of it.

This may be within the rules, but clearly it is far outside the bounds of common sense.

Which leads one to ask: what are the rules anyway? Hard to say, but every TV network does have a screening process to ensure that ads meet their standards for ethics and accuracy.

Personally, I think common sense makes an excellent standard. To be fair to marketers and consumers, legal disclaimers should pass three tests.

1. Legibility
2. Honesty
3. Brevity

Rate.com grossly and obscenely violates two out of three. (Kudos for the honesty!)

Of course, Rate.com is a third-tier, cable-only advertiser. How do big-time mainstream national advertisers treat their legal lines?

Apple has always been a solid citizen in this area. Straightforward. To the point. Though few will remember, there was a time when those lines even displayed some wit.

But if you believe that legal lines keep advertisers honest, Apple’s latest efforts are more dubious.

Take a look at the current One Night commercial, which sells the awesome gorgeousness of photos shot on iPhone.



How’d you like that legal line at the end?

Oh, didn’t notice it? Join the club. Here’s a screen shot to help you out.



In case you still can’t see it, the line at the bottom is:

Some images shot on iPhone 7 Plus. Additional hardware and apps used.

Apple easily passes the brevity test, but ugh, it fails miserably in both legibility and honesty.

One simple question should guide the way we evaluate every aspect of an ad: What will the Typical Customer think?

Since the legal line is basically invisible, Mr./Ms. Typical would see only a series of gorgeous shots followed by the words “Shot on iPhone 7.” It would make perfect sense to then buy an iPhone 7.

Not an iPhone 7 Plus. Not with additional hardware. Not with additional software.

Now, technically, the iPhone 7 Plus is a member of the iPhone 7 “family.” (A family of two.) But the fact remains: if you can’t see the disclaimer, the information in the ad is dangerously incomplete.

It’s no secret why things like this happen. Creative people in advertising have long played a cat-and-mouse game with clients, lawyers and TV network watchdogs when it comes to incorporating legal disclaimers. Understandably, they push to make things pure and simple.

With the statue of limitations passed, I admit that I have been guilty of this crime.

But the problem lies less with miscreants such as myself and more with the guidelines for legal disclaimers. This is a world that is historically devoid of common sense.

And I haven’t even mentioned radio ads. How many spots have you heard in which the legal line at the end is spoken at the speed of light or electronically sped up? What’s important to these advertisers is that the words are present, not that they can be understood.

I don’t expect this article to incite a Legal Type Rebellion. I’d be overjoyed with a little more thought and consideration.

While we’re at it, could we please embrace this newfangled thing called “the internet”? Since everyone has access, why not replace excessive legal type with a simple line like, “Full information at companysite.com”?

With just a bit of common sense, the world will absolutely, positively be a better place.*

*”Better” is a relative term. Work will be hard, true love will be elusive and danger will lurk around every corner — but advertising will be simpler. I think.

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  • Galaxy_Surfer_007

    Good column, but let’s face the reality that the purpose of advertising is to deceive and manipulate. It’s all part of the manufacture of wants and consciousness. Perhaps we can envision a society in which advertising is not the central funding mechanism and propeller of commercial and consumer activity,

    Still, in the meantime, your principles are good ones and Apple’s deception horrendous! Thanks for pointing that out! Apple is beginning to lose its appeal for many and this hastens that trend!

  • Gab

    The purpose of great advertising is to tell people what you stand for and believe in – hopefully not legal copy polluting your content.

    You’re cynical about it, but I guarantee you there’s many ads you still loved because of what they stood for and never because of “deception and manipulation” bla bla, probably didn’t even try to sell you or even mentioned the product.

    Apple isn’t deceptive about this, they just didn’t think there was anything wrong with the ad and that’s the wrong part.

    To Ken: You’re not the only one, noticed it too and liked that you did too, it’s like a strip of imperfection on that background that clearly shouldn’t be there. I mean nobody is going to read it anyway so why put it there, don’t let the Lawyers in the creative room.

  • MacServiceGuy

    “…let’s face the reality that the purpose of advertising is to deceive and manipulate.”

    Advertising, like the word “racial” is neutral and devoid of anything negative or positive. It’s merely a description of something.

    In the case of the word “racial” – when someone says or does something that is related to race, it may very well be that it’s racist. or it may not be. but in either case, whether good or bad, racist or not, it is racial in nature.

    I’m not arguing that the overwhelming majority of those who advertise do so with intent to deceive, but there are those of us who take the sincerity and honesty we put into our ads and marketing quite seroiusly – so it’s kind of offensive to paint it with such a broad brush.

    perhaps what you meant to say was: “let’s face the reality is that the overwhelming majority of those in the advertising arena see it’s purpose as a way to deceive and manipulate people”

    that statement i could agree with

    normally i wouldn’t split hairs on something like this, I only do so because I don’t want to be painted with that brush.

  • Gary Deezy

    I don’t think you came down hard enough on these ads, to be frank, Ken. I am disturbed that Apple would use such a disclaimer. Not because I don’t expect Apple to use other hardware and software to produce the commercial, but what if some of the “hardware” used is another (non-iPhone 7) camera or lens?

    By stating “some images” they are leaving themselves open for me to doubt their sincerity.

    Was every image shot on an Apple Product?

    If their disclaimer doesn’t point to another, readable webpage with full disclosure, then it should at least state (in pure white, readable text):

    “All images shot on iPhone 7 family of phones.
    Additional hardware and software were used to produce this advertisement.”

    Unless of course, that is not factual.

  • Gary Deezy

    Well said, sir. Advertising is meant to persuade and to promote. Whether a company uses advertising in a deceptive manner to do that persuasion is strictly up to the company.

  • Well said and I agree, but.
    With a broader view every commercial is meant to create a desire and every effective commercial create an interest that was missing without the viewing of the commercial.
    This is a manipulation, not a deceive but nevertheless nature of commercials is manipulative.
    An honest web site can be informative but tv commercials are meant to manipulate, like it or not.

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