Watch Out for the 'Mouseprint'

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Have you seen the television commercial for Corelle dish ware?

To demonstrate that it's "durable as ever," a fashion model carries a Corelle plate as she sashays down the runway. She slips -- the announcer says they "greased the runway" -- and the plate hits the floor, but survives unscathed.

The implication here is that Corelle dish ware will not break, no matter what.

I had to pause the commercial on my VCR to be able to read the fine-print disclaimer across the bottom of the screen that said the plate "is durable but may break if dropped or struck." But that's what they just did in the ad!

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Watch the story on "20/20: Promises, Promises" Friday at 10 p.m. ET

Corelle wrote us, "The disclaimer was added because we never claim that our glass dinnerware is unbreakable."

I guess Bishop Fulton Sheen was right when he said, "The big print giveth and the fine print taketh away."

These fine-print disclaimers started with car ads in which "the cars are going impossibly fast," says New York Times advertising reporter Stuart Elliott. To stay out of trouble with government regulators, Elliott says, "there would be the words superimposed on screen: 'Professional driver, closed course, do not attempt.' And then from there, it's gone on."

'Vehicles Can't Really Drive on Buildings'

Lately it's gotten even sillier. The disclaimer on the new ad for the Ford Edge, which shows the car high in the air whizzing across the facade of skyscrapers, points out that "vehicles can't really drive on buildings."

I asked Elliott, "What's the point of the fine print? Nobody can read it."

"Well, it covers them from anyone like yourself who comes out after them, saying, 'This is not true. This is deceptive. This is misleading,'" Elliott said.

The companies also want to avoid running afoul of the government's complex consumer protection laws, like Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, which prohibits unfair or deceptive advertising.

Elliott says the fine print helps advertisers stay out of trouble because "they can point to that and say, 'We fulfilled our obligation. We told the viewer that this cannot be done in the real world.'"

"So our government is encouraging pointless, unreadable warnings?" I asked.

That made Elliott chuckle. "That's entirely possible, yes."

Read the Tiny Type

Federal and state laws are supposed to protect consumers, but like many government rules, they aren't very successful. It's a good thing there are Web sites like Mouseprint.org, which focuses on "the disclaimers, footnotes, and loopholes that advertisers don't want you to see."

Mouseprint.org gets its name from the disclaimers' tiny type, which the site says is so small only a mouse could read it. It has lots of examples of ads with fine print, like the commercial touting Chrysler's 30-Day Return Program.

The announcer says, "Now is the best time ever to get a new Chrysler. … And if not satisfied, simply return it within 30 days."

But Mouseprint.org points out that the fine-print disclaimer makes this boast seem like an empty promise. In small type it reads: "Customer responsible for 5% restocking fee, .50 per mile driven, and all financing, insurance and tax charges."

The site explains, "The real bite comes from the restocking fee, which on a $25,000 list price car (even if you paid $20,000), would amount to $1,250. It is unclear how much the taxes, financing and insurance charges would add to this, but the total charge to change your mind about buying this car could easily be over $2,000."

Chrysler didn't answer our request for comment.

Ghost Writers

It makes me want to go home and read a good book. Maybe "The Ambler Warning," a mystery from the famous Robert Ludlum, author of "The Bourne Identity" and 20 other best-sellers. Except that Ludlum died six years ago, well before he supposedly wrote "The Ambler Warning."

The novel was written by someone else. In tiny print on an inside page, the publisher does tell us: "Since his death, the Estate of Robert Ludlum has worked with a carefully selected author and editor to prepare and edit this work."

It's not just Ludlum. V.C. Andrews, famous for writing "Flowers in the Attic," is still churning out lots of romance novels, but she has been dead for 20 years.

I asked Elliott, "Isn't this what you'd call a scam?"

"It's almost like a cult," he replied. "From the dead, these people come back and they're writing still. It's almost spooky."

The bottom line? To try to avoid empty promises, you'd better get a magnifying glass.

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