It's the catch, the loophole, the gotcha: It is mouseprint in advertising.
Mouseprint is the fine type in print advertisements, seemingly so small only a mouse could read it. Sometimes it features an asterisk relaying details on the ifs, ands or buts surrounding the offer. On the radio it is the fast-talk provisos, conditions and requisites. In television it's the tiny disclaimer along the bottom of the picture, sometimes indecipherable to anyone without a 60-inch screen and a digital video recorder to freeze-frame the petite type.
Wherever mouseprint appears in advertising or labeling, it is rarely good news for the consumer. If it were, the marketer would blare the news in larger type as a selling point, said Edgar Dworsky, a longtime consumer advocate and former Massachusetts assistant attorney general for consumer protection. And mouseprint is important. Otherwise, the advertiser could get away with not saying it at all.
In the worst cases, mouseprint completely contradicts the main sales pitch. An ad might say, "Everything on sale!" but with an asterisk, which leads to a footnote that spells out a list of items that are not on sale. That obliterates the meaning of the word "everything." In fact, not everything is on sale.
In milder cases mouseprint simply discloses more information and reasonable restrictions on the offer.
Reading the fine print is standard consumer advice, but too few people heed it, said Dworsky, who as a result started the advertising-criticism Web site Mouse Print (mouseprint.org) in addition to his news-aggregation site ConsumerWorld.org.
"There are surprises, usually buried in the fine print," he said. "And the surprise usually benefits the advertiser rather than the consumer."
So it's worth taking a moment to read the mouseprint.
"When you see the asterisk, that's the signal to turn the advertisement on its head and focus on the footnote," Dworsky said. "What they don't want you to know tends to be in the fine print."
Consumer Reports magazine highlights advertising gotchas in its "Selling it" feature. A recent issue showed an Avis rental car advertisement with a picture of a sporty Saturn Sky roadster. The disclaimer then mentions, "Avis does not currently have Saturn Sky in its fleet."
Taco Bell Home Originals sells a supermarket "Taco Dinner" kit. Less appetizing is the smaller-print disclaimer. It reveals that to complete the taco dinner you need to add your own ground beef, lettuce, cheese, tomatoes and sour cream.
As a general rule, be skeptical of advertisements featuring the word "free," using exclamation points and asterisks and making extreme claims with such words as "best," "unlimited" and "lowest price." The old sayings are generally true: There's no such thing as a free lunch, and offers that seem too good to be true probably are.
A lot of consumer spending today goes toward products and services advertised with mouseprint. To help you spend your money wisely, here are a few categories of products and services that often use mouseprint.
-- Financial services
Credit cards, loan financing and investment accounts are examples. Gary Coleman, the child star from the TV show "Diff 'rent Strokes," currently is promoting CashCall. It's an unsecured loan service for people having difficulty borrowing money. It sounds like a lifesaver until the mouseprint reveals that it typically charges 99.25 percent annual interest, meaning for every $1 you borrow you have to pay back nearly $2. It's not available in every state.
-- Phone services
Telecommunication services, especially wireless phone service, are rife with hyped promises. A typical problem is that customers sign an agreement that says the telecom company can change prices and terms anytime it wants and may cancel your service at its discretion. So if a company promises a constant price for life, it could change its mind. Or if it offers unlimited roaming, which is straying from the company's own phone network, you must read the fine print to learn that it might fire you as a customer if you roam too much.
Read labels on grocery products. An example is Aquafina bottled water made by PepsiCo. The label resembles blue mountains, perhaps suggesting the contents came from an exotic natural source. Fine print on the back of the label says, "Bottled at the source P.W.S.," where PWS stands for public water supply. It's filtered municipal tap water.
A common situation is when the price of a food product stays the same, but the amount in the package is reduced, making it more expensive. For example, Hellmann's mayonnaise last year reduced its typical jar size from 32 ounces to 30. The net weight is revealed in small print on the label. Hellmann's is not alone. Many product marketers have done the same thing. That's why consumers always should use unit prices when comparing products.
All this is not to suggest that consumers aren't responsible for their actions; sometimes it is their own fault they didn't make an effort to better understand details of the product or service.
But when a marketer misleads a consumer and only tells the truth in the fine type, mouseprint becomes a mouse trap, and consumers should be wary of taking the cheese.
Gregory Karp is a personal finance writer for The Morning Call, a Tribune Co. newspaper in Allentown, Pa. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.