We're surrounded by messaging wherever we go — in train stations, on buses, in stores and on the street. There are now pitches in the bottoms of those bins you're supposed to put your shoes and computers in to send them through security at the airport!
How often do you bother to read the fine print that accompanies nearly every advertisement and product package? Not often enough, says Consumer Advocate Edgar Dworsky, who has long run the Web site consumerworld.org. He recently spun-off a new site which scouts out and deconstructs the fine print to see if those too-good-to-be-true deals really are. It's called mouseprint.org. “Mouse print appears everywhere,” says Dworsky, “and the goal of this site is to turn advertising on its head, so that the focus is on the fine print rather than the headline.”
I asked Dworsky what, in particular, consumers should be on the look out for. Are there particular industries that tend to use this small type more than others? In what media is the messaging most hidden? And — because I'm busy, and I know you are too — what can we do to be well-informed consumers?
His answers will help protect you during your next purchases, and the real examples that go along with them range from surprising (who knew you should be suspicious of toilet paper?) to downright deceptive
Supermarket buys: No one really expects to get swindled on a grocery-shopping trip. But Dworsky says that packaged goods, like ice cream, potato chips, tuna fish and mayonnaise, can be some of the worst offenders. Why? Because the companies that produce these products figured out long ago that shoppers don't take well to price increases.
So, instead of bumping the numbers, these companies tend to downsize their product's content, but keep the price (and sometimes even the size of the package) the same. Unless you check the corner of the package for quantity information each time, you're going to get duped. Tuna went from seven ounces to six. Tampons, which used to come 40 to a box, now offer 32 for the same price. And perhaps the worst offender? Scott toilet paper, which has long boasted 1,000 sheets per roll.
The real deal, according to Dworsky, is that each sheet on the roll was actually shortened. The company managed to do away with 300 inches, while still keeping the same number of sheets. Dave Dickson, spokesman for Kimberly Clark says this was done to accommodate customers who wished to have a softer, thicker toilet paper. “In order to do that and ensure that the roll still fit on the spindle in the bathroom we had to reduce the overall size of the sheets,” he said.
Vehicle advertising: Car dealerships are constantly offering enticing deals to consumers. You have the end-of-model-year sales. The overstock discounts. And, during times of high gas prices, the free gas giveaways. Chrysler took a somewhat different approach a few months ago, offering a 30-day return program — kind of like a nice, long test drive. The mouse print? Customers who return the car are subject to a 5 percent MSRP restocking fee, 50 cents per mile driven, and all financing, insurance and tax charges. Dworsky estimates these charges could add up to over $2,000, which can be anywhere from 8 to 10 percent of the purchase price. Chrysler didn't return our calls for comment.
Dworsky says that vehicle promotions — and anything else advertised on television, for that matter — can be especially misleading because the fine print is shown so briefly. It's easy to stop on a newspaper or magazine ad and squint through all of the type, but on the bottom of a television screen, it becomes next to impossible to absorb the information.
Financial services: You've heard it before. Money market and CD accounts with sky-high interest rates. Credit cards that boast no fees. It seems that often, these financial ads carry the most fine print — and perhaps worst of all, use words that the average consumer just doesn't understand.
You shouldn't have to be a financial planner to know if you're getting a good deal on bank services. One of Dworsky's examples, from Washington Mutual, touts a free checking account with a Gold Debit MasterCard — earning you cash back on purchases. The question of how much cash back is answered in the fine print: The bank will give you three cents (not 3 percent) for every purchase, and up to $250 annually.
Says Dworsky, “The only way to reach $250 is to make over 8,000 individual purchases per year.” A Washington Mutual spokesman disagrees.
“Pennies add up. They add up for our customers, who are responding very well to the three cents back on our new WAMU free checking account, which is what this is part of. The pennies also add up when the customers choose to donate that money to local schools of their choice through our program,” says Shane Winn.
Reality television: This fad has really swept the nation, and needless to say, we seem to be hooked. So hooked, in fact, that we want to get involved — and producers are eager to give us the opportunity by allowing us to “text in our vote” for our favorite competitor. But it'll cost you, says the fine print, often to the tune of a few bucks a text.
Worse, however, are the television ads aimed at children and teenagers. Dworsky says you'll often see these on cable stations offering subscription text messaging services. It's easy to sign up — you simply text a code to a number mentioned in the ad — but the fine print often makes it hard on your wallet, Dworsky says. One service sends you a $1 message daily, adding up to a bill of $30 a month. Typically, charges are added to your cell phone bill, so subscribers may not know how much they are in for until a month of fees has been imposed.
So what can you do to stay out of these consumer traps? Follow the asterisks. “You have to be aware,” says Dworsky. “If you see an asterisk, it's there for a reason. I wish we could bury the asterisk, and just tell the story straight, but the reality is that advertisers highlight the good and de-emphasize the bad.” This, in turn, forces consumers to be more responsible. So if you see an offer or product claim that interests you, pause the DVR, or break out the magnifying glass, and read the fine print. It may take a few minutes, but it's guaranteed to take less time than a trip to the car dealership — only to find out that that commercial was, in fact, too good to be true.
Additional reporting: Arielle McGowen
Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money magazine and serves as AOL's official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC's "Today Show" and is also a columnist for Life magazine. She is the author of four books, including "Pay It Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day" (Portfolio, 2004). To find out more, visit her Web site, .