Column: More Proof: Nothing is free


Commentary by Jon Quick

The world of advertising is full of deceptive claims. Some of them are just plain bogus.

You see them every day. Fine print at the bottom of a TV ad that you could never read, especially since it appears for about two seconds. Even if you stopped the picture and tried to read it, you can’t. The attempt here is to provide a legal disclaimer as required by the Federal Trade Commission, which regulates advertising. Or tries.

I recently sent out my team of “investigators” (two smart interns) to find local examples of downright deception.

A fast food place that is famous for a snack named after a raging snowstorm says in advertising that the treat will be served upside down or it’s free. At the store, it says the same thing in a large sign at the drive-thru. But try to claim it. At three separate locations, the answer was the same: “We don’t participate in that,” or “We don’t do that anymore.” Turns out, at the bottom of the sign there is extremely fine print that says, “at participating restaurants only.” No way can you read that from your car. Yet the ad rolls on. The sign is still up as of this writing.

Next stop, a famous hamburger stand where there was another sign: “Your apple pie is free if we don’t ask if you want one.” No one ever did. We requested our free pie on several occasions. One reply: “Let me ask the manager.” The manager answered: “That’s an old offer.” Others graciously produced the free pie with a smile. Next time, the pie sign was replaced with “free cookies or chicken” if we don’t ask. We asked. We got one chicken bite about the size of a quarter.

A car dealer’s TV ad: “No Money Down, $99 a month lease.” The visual was an economy car. The next shot was a fancy pick-up and $129 flashed on the screen. We called the dealership saying we are interested in the pick-up for no money down. He said, “That requires $3,999 down.” When asked about the ad, he said it’s all stated in the disclosure (fine print no one can read). “Deceptive,” we responded. “Tell ya’ what, come on in and we’ll take good care of you.” Sure. Sorry, no deal.

Maybe stricter regulations are needed? Use of the loopholes in FDA-required disclosures are too common and the print keeps getting finer and finer. The law says, “An ad is unlawful if it tends to mislead or deceive.”

Some groups – like lawyers and doctors – police themselves with tough ethical regulations on advertising. They can’t say things like “Best,” or “Lowest Price.” Imagine a doctor that says, “Best brain surgery in town. Quick service. Lowest prices.” Wonder what his small print would say.

Jon Quick is President of the Carmel-based marketing and public relations firm, Q Public Relations & Marketing. You can reach him at He is a former 25+ year manager at both CBS and Emmis Communications.


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