The Fine Print*

*(This column may contain inaccuracies, irritation and outlandish bouts of hyperbole. Also, hives. Read with caution.) 

What’s the demographic for all the fine print hiding on the bottom of magazine advertisements or in rapid-fire vocal disclaimers during drug commercials? Anyone under the age of 50 doesn’t have time to read it. Anyone under 18 probably doesn’t understand it. Anyone over 50 can’t read it without glasses, and those past their 70s won’t remember it anyway. The fact is, fine print has no audience. It’s sleight-of-hand, a magician’s distraction meant to minimize the impact of this often-damning, “extra” information.

A 2014 study titled “Does Anyone Read the Fine Print? Consumer Attention to Standard Form Contracts” in New York University’s Law and Economics Working Papers found almost none of us read the legal mumbo jumbo in the terms-of-service contracts that appear on websites. In fact, so few of us read it that it’s logical to assume this is, in fact, the goal. The research found only one in a thousand users clicks on an optional link to a site’s terms of service. In cases where the website gives customers the choice to click “I agree” to those terms, the number is even lower. Only one in 10,000 will keep going if two clicks are required. The brave souls who manage to ratchet up the strength for those two clicks typically spend a mere 29 seconds actually reading through the terms themselves.
In other words, we spend more time reading through the ingredients of scrambled eggs than on a binding, legal contract outlining how companies will share our credit card information.
We can’t be trusted to pay attention to fine print, as evidenced by last year’s most profitable drug, Humira. It’s approved for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, chronic plaque psoriasis and Crohn’s disease, among others, but it also has a few side effects.*
*(… an increased risk for infection, certain cancers, and heart failure. It may cause patients to bleed, bruise, cause itching or hives, swelling in the face or hands, tingling in the mouth or throat, chest tightness, trouble breathing, blistering, peeling, red skin rash, scaly patches on the skin, painful urination, changes in vision, uneven heartbeat, trouble breathing, cough, fever, chills, runny or stuffy nose, sore throat, and body aches, dark urine or pale stools, nausea, vomiting …)

Companies are simply taking advantage of a population too busy to be bothered. We’ve come to accept that most everything comes with a caveat, and we’ve become inured to what would have shocked earlier generations. For instance, food that contained Olestra, the fat substitute destined to revolutionize the diet food industry by offering fat-free potato chips and snacks, contained the following warning: “This product contains Olestra, which may cause anal leakage.” I still pulled a hamstring running to the grocery store when they came out.
Companies can go too far, of course. In 2013, an Australian complained his “footlong” Subway sub was a mere 11 inches. Subway added the following fine print on its Facebook page: “With regards to the size of the bread and calling it a footlong, ‘SUBWAY FOOTLONG’ is a registered trademark as a descriptive name for the sub sold in Subway® Restaurants and not intended to be a measurement of length.”
Regardless, the extent to which we require this fine print is alarming. Vidal Sassoon hair dryers once came with the famous disclaimer, “Do not use while sleeping.” Sleep aid Nytol warns users, “May cause drowsiness.” MDW Outdoor Group’s fox/bobcat urine powder adds, “Not for human consumption,” while Rowenta irons come with the following sage advice: “Do not iron clothes on body.” The list goes on: Duraflame fire logs (“Risk of fire”), Nabisco Easy Cheese (“For best results, remove cap”), Razor Go-Karts (“This product moves when used”), Dremel Electric Rotary Tool (“Not intended for use as a dental drill”), and the iPod shuffle (“Do not eat iPod shuffle”).
The fine print is everywhere. And if we can’t be trusted not to eat the iPod, I guess we’re getting what’s coming to us.
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