Thursday, December 1, 2011

What Does that Asterisk Mean?

A common trend consumers may notice is just how many asterisks are on advertisements.  Some advertisements have so many asterisks that the company begins using additional symbols like crosses, degree symbols, or double crosses.  Asterisks usually lead to additional information about a deal being offered. However, the frequency in which asterisks are misused or used for purposes that have the potential to mislead is concerning.

Last year, the Kansas City Better Business Bureau had to contact multiple car dealerships with advertisements that had asterisks the led nowhere. There was no additional information. The asterisk implied that there were exceptions to a listed price, but the consumer had no way of knowing what those exceptions were.

Some asterisks lead to lengthy disclaimers that virtually nullify everything that the advertisement has just said.  Asterisks should never be used to contradict what was said immediately before. Companies can face legal action over this. Short disclaimers can do the same thing.  Businesses are not allowed to advertise something that is untrue in most situations unless conspicuously disclosed near the advertised items, not hidden away in small print at the bottom of (or back) of the ad.

I've seen companies link their asterisks to disclaimers or terms of use that are dozens of pages long. The advertisement gives no indication of where to look for the additional information that is undoubtedly buried somewhere within the 10,000 word disclaimer. That too, is unacceptable.

Even though some companies make asterisks difficult to follow, they should be much easier to comprehend.  Just follow the BBB Code of Advertising:

An asterisk may be used to impart additional information about a word or term which is not in itself inherently deceptive. The asterisk or other reference symbol should not be used as a means of contradicting or substantially changing the meaning of any advertising statement. Information referenced by asterisks should be clearly and prominently disclosed.

If you see an advertisement that might violate the above statement, contact your Better Business Bureau. It's possible that the business is accidentally or intentionally misleading consumers. It will need to be rectified.

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