#203 In which our hero discusses a common element of advertising, which is none the less annoying for being commonplace.
A word about disclaimers.
But first, you know what I’m talking about, right? When you see an ad and it says something like “$5 off Colgate Whitestrips*” and the asterisk points to tiny print at the bottom that reads, “*Limit one per customer;” that’s a disclaimer.
As someone who works in advertising, I know non-advertising people think disclaimers are stupid, disingenuous, misleading, deceitful and, at times, outright lies. But here’s a secret about people who work in advertising: we think so, too.
No copywriter or art director ever said “Hey! Let’s throw in a disclaimer in 6-point at the bottom! That will really take this ad to the next level!” We do it because the client asks us to do it… and the client only does it because their lawyers insist that they do it.
And sadly, often the lawyers are right. It’s a little pathetic that we live in a culture where this is necessary, where people try to game the system and sue companies not to recover damages, but just to screw them out of a couple bucks. Next time you see a contest or sweepstakes (is there a difference, you ask? Legally, yes there is) at your grocery or wherever, take a look at the official rules. There’s probably a lot of them. That’s the company’s legal department working hard to cover their collective butts from any conceivable legal threat.
I’ve been thinking about disclaimers a fair amount lately, because I have a client who is, let us say, disclaimer-obsessed. Once again, to comply to “I Don’t Want to Get Fired” guidelines, I won’t give out this company’s real name or industry; but for the purposes of this post let’s say they are a smallish (but still national in scope) retailer of eyeglasses.
As part of their complete service, this company provides free eye exams. This is one of the things they like to promote, as in “FREE Eye Exams!” They never charge for their eye exams… I know this because any time I’ve written “FREE Eye Exam” I’ve had to add an “*” and the words “Our eye exam is always free.”
This disclaimer (one of many they liked to plaster their direct mail pieces with) always confused me… see, it wasn’t “free eye exam with $50 purchase” or “Free eye exam on Mondays only” … it’s a free eye exam. Period. Doesn’t seem to be a reason for a disclaimer. I mean, disclaimers are there to protect the company, but since they’re actually doing what they say they’re doing, I don’t see why any protection was needed.
But by God they wanted--nay, demanded!-- that that disclaimer appear any time the free eye exam was mentioned, which was at least once in every piece.
Now, this client was a bit problematic, which honestly has more to do with the AE on the account than any unreasonable demands, but regardless I’ve learned not to push too hard about questioning these unnecessary disclaimers.
This last round of direct mail was pushing it, even for this client. See, every month the direct mail has an offer, like “Come and get $50 off designer frames” or “Free gift card with purchase.” For the recent DM, the client wanted the offer to be “FREE Eye Exams this month only!” Which is fine, except we’ve been doing a year of DM that reads “Our eye exam is always free.”
Naturally I questioned this, and the AE helpfully told me, “Well, that’s what they want,” and left it at that. I pushed back*, trying to point out how ridiculous it was.
* Hey look! A disclaimer! Actually a note, really. At my agency the AEs always say “I’ll push back on that,” meaning they’ll go back to the client and try to get them to change their mind. Note that the AE never says, “I’ll tell the client ‘no’” or “I’ll make sure the client knows we won’t do that,” because, you see, our AEs NEVER say no to the client. I suspect that most times when they “push back” it goes something like this:
CLIENT: I want you to change that box to plaid.
AE: Um, plaid? You sure?
AE: Okay! Plaid it is!
After this particular AE pushed back, the client came back and said, “look, it’s like this: the eye exam is free, but y’see, this month we’re also going to throw in a free frame fitting, which isn’t free. So that’s the ‘only this month’ part. Get it?”
Which again, would be fine, except that below the disclaimer that says “our eye exams are always free” is another disclaimer that reads, “our frame fittings are always free.”
Finally, the client saw the light and realized that they couldn’t bullshit their way through after they had so thoroughly established this free exam disclaimer. They changed it to just “FREE Eye Exam!” and took out the only this month businesses. Which finally makes it a truthful, albeit weak, offer.
And as dumb as that all was, it in no way prepared me for the following month’s offer.
For the next direct mail piece, the client wanted the offer to be “FREE 30-day trial” (if it doesn’t make sense that a company would make you a pair of glasses to wear for a month for free, remember that this client isn’t really in the eyeglass business, okay?) The client had heard of some businesses like theirs having a great deal of success with a free trial offer, and they wanted to give it a whirl.
So far, so good.
But after I had written the thing (“FREE 30-day trial! No risk! No obligation to buy!”) they came back with the disclaimers. Which read thusly:
* Payment required for 30-day free trial. Restocking fee for returns is $80.
To which I said, “This is a fucking joke, right?”
But sadly, no. It would appear that the trial period was free, but if you didn’t like your frames and brought them back, you had to pay 80 bucks. The only way to really get a free trial was to buy the frames.
Which makes it sound like it’s not really free at all, doesn’t it?
Keep in mind that it wasn’t us--the agency--suggesting this overtly deceptive approach, it was the client. People in advertising have to eat a lot of shit over “tricking” people into buying things, so naturally it really pissed me off that our client was trying to pull a fast one like this.
I voiced my outrage and got a “well, that’s what they want to do” from the AE--which is just bullshit. But, a couple days later I got word that the client was going to change the disclaimer. “Well thank God,” I thought. “They came to their senses.”
The client changed the “Payment required for 30-day free trial. Restocking fee for returns is $80” disclaimer to one that reads, “See store for details.”
Now the client isn’t just lying to their potential customers, they’re making those customers come to the store first so they can lie to their faces.
See? It’s not always the ad agencies. We hate disclaimers as much as you do.