Want to save 50 percent, get a product free or have a manufacturer’s warranty cover an expensive purchase for life? Of course you do, and advertisers know it.
Consumer Reports says that while federal and state laws generally ban the use of misleading or deceptive advertising, regulators can’t monitor everything, and seductive half-truths and outright deceptions are common.
So it’s up to you to figure out what’s true, what’s false and what’s pushing the envelope. Consumer Reports notes these advertising terms you shouldn’t take at face value:
• “Satisfaction guaranteed.” Federal Trade Commission guidelines say that companies should use “satisfaction guaranteed” or “money-back guarantee” only if they’re willing to give full refunds to unhappy customers. The guidelines say that companies must disclose any conditions or limitations, such as a time limit.
Some companies’ satisfaction guarantees are friendly. The website of retailer Lands’ End says you can return any product you’re not happy with at any time for a full refund or exchange. But others are less so. Under Michelin’s 30-day satisfaction guarantee, if you’re not 100 percent satisfied with your new tires, you can return them — but for an exchange, not a refund. And if you’re not 100 percent satisfied with the replacement tires, forget it — the policy applies only to the first set.
• “Going out of business.” New York City consumer officials recently fined a shop that sells rugs, antique furniture and other items, accusing it of running a going-out-of-business sale without a license. The company, operating under a slightly different name, had held a going-out-of-business sale at the same location nine months earlier. But even at a legitimate going-out-of-business sale, don’t assume everything’s a deal.
• “Lifetime warranty.” The term “"lifetime” has no legal meaning. It can refer to a product’s lifetime, not yours, and that could mean the period of time a retailer carries the item, the manufacturer still makes it, parts are available or you still own it.
• “We will not be undersold.” Many stores guarantee they have the lowest prices, promising to match or beat a competitor’s price before or after you buy. But those promises often come with lots of restrictions in the fine print. Wal-Mart stores won’t match online prices, and Sears won’t price-match Internet-only retailers.
• “Free.” The word “free” is like a powerful aphrodisiac, so it’s a favorite among retailers. FTC guidelines say that if you must buy an item to get something free, the price can’t be inflated to offset the cost of the free item. And all conditions must be disclosed.
But think about it: The regular price must be pretty steep for companies to give away stuff and still make a profit. Another catch is being asked to pay something to get a free item, such as additional shipping and handling that may equal or exceed the item’s cost. Then there are “free trials” that aren’t free at all when the company winds up charging your credit card for a monthly service without telling you it will if you don’t cancel in time.
By the editors of Consumer Reports (www.consumerreports.org).