Notes Off the Napkin: Reclaiming Disclaimers

Notes-Off-the-Napkin-logo1By Andrew Frame

Quite literally, mere weeks before we were to hand the keys to our house over to the mortgage company, a radio/TV cluster that we had been calling on for the previous year, called back. They wanted to know if we were still interested in working the monthly retainer we had proposed.

Um, yes?

A month into the deal, they’re a machine. We should have charged more.

Anyway, one of the things I’ve been working on with our agency clients that is being carried over successfully to our new local-direct work, is to lose the disclaimer. Write scripts so a disclaimer is simply not necessary. Some localities have laws that require some kind of disclaimer, and often we throw on a see dealer for details, or on your approved credit to make the bureaucrats giddy with legislative glee.

I’ve always thought disclaimers to be an extension of dishonesty. If you have to conditionalize a comment with such legalese as a ten second disclaimer – then think of another way to say it. You’re a professional copywriter for heaven’s sake. You make your living manipulating the same twenty-six letters that my two-year old sticks on the icebox with her magnets.

Truth be told, the disclaimer thing came about from what I call junk-phrases, cliché’s, and plain dumb copy. We have an agency Out West that is a real mom and pop operation. I love the guy. He can sell ice cubes to Eskimos, but his scripts are just infected with the most worthless junk phrases imaginable. We rewrite him all the time.

Here’s a line that’s as ubiquitous, as it is idiotic: “No credit application will be refused.” Well, duh. If you’re trying to sell cars in a consumerist society that functions by exploiting debt, you darn sure aren’t going to refuse anyone who wants to hand you a credit application. The smokescreen is that some dumb yokel will think you’ll accept their credit... they don’t really differentiate simply because you’ve added the word application.

Another junk phrase to avoid: “We’ve got the car/sofa/dishwasher you want!” Oh, really? You have the new Tesla electric coupe in British racing green on your “pre-loved” lot? I bloody well doubt it.

“You need this DVD!” That’s from a Bowflex television commercial. We have a Bowflex. We bought it used from the used sporting goods store. And I do not need a DVD. Don’t be so presumptuous to tell people what they need in your ad copy.

(There’s a whole “needs versus wants” thing that I’ll get into at another time. In short, if it isn’t food, shelter, safety, and environmental and medical care, it’s not a need.)

How about “under invoice”? Which invoice? The one on the window or the one the manufacturer has with the dealer? I checked with my car-guru. He said there could be as many as seven different, legitimate invoices on one vehicle. And loss leaders aside, no one is going to sell anything for less than they paid and stay in business.

We had one dealership locally run by a fella named John Scanlon. His ads were flat and unimaginative, but they didn’t need disclaimers or junk-phrases. He’d show you a Lincoln, tell you that this particular model costs 40-thousand, and promise a deal that both sides would be happy with. We bought two cars from him over the years. They lived up to the no shenanigans approach of the advertisements.

How about “sign and drive”? You mean, I actually have to sign my name before I can drive a $25,000 car off the lot? I thought I could get it on my good looks alone. I do have a face for radio. Oh! Hey! Look at the disclaimer...  I do have out-of-pocket money on the deal. Tax, tag, and title. Now, I may not have an upfront cost for the car (or sofa or dishwasher), but I still have a cost for the car’s peripheral transaction details. So, why bury it in the fine print? Why not write the copy to exploit the fact that all you have to do is put a couple of bucks down to keep the guv’ment happy and you’re done. No disclaimer needed.

How many times a year can you have a “year end clearance”? Model year, fiscal year, Calendar year (Jewish, Gregorian, Julian, and Aztec)... did I miss any ways to mark a “year end”?

“Lowest prices anywhere!” Sure, since no two stores carry the exact same model. Read the disclaimer. Check the model numbers. Stop the madness.

You’ll also note that getting away from these junk phrases does more than clean up your copy and reduce the need for a disclaimer. It dumps a lot of the useless cliché’s that seem to find their way into script after script by novice copywriters. Scripts sound more informative, more entertaining, more convincing, and they do it because you’ve taken out all the unnecessary fat and left the listener a meaty steak for their consumer grill.

Be honest, and put the conditional in the script: “Prices start at $25,000 on your approved credit.” Wouldn’t that be so much easier to do than spend forty-five seconds touting a $199 per month payment on a new car, then adding a fifteen second disclaimer conditionalizing the statement to include “for the first three months, then monthly price goes to $xxx, offer good on (specific models with specific options)...” You can spend all that airtime luxuriously selling the benefits of the vehicle to a prospective buyer, and touch on the price point in a way that doesn’t require a quarter-minute of high speed whispering like an obscene phone call.

At the end of last year, we wrote a campaign for a cable television company that used three-month sign-up specials and other financial fine-print to seduce new customers. Ten different spots, selling five different packages – and none of them needed a disclaimer because we wrote the conditions tactfully into the body of the script. Poetry.

Some fine print isn’t too bad, though. “Batteries not included.” I can understand that one. “No smoking during refueling.” That too, since I know people that are stupid enough to light up around a gas tank.

But “price based on $2500 down at 6.6 percent, not all buyers will qualify, blah, blah, blah...?” Look, you can write copy so you will not need a disclaimer, except for what may be legally mandated where you live.

Sales messages that sell on a price point that in turn is dependent on a wildly swinging variable like a credit score are similar to political scripts. Political scripts rely on hyperbole to push the limits of “truth.” Opinions are stated as facts, by isolating a single factual item, often pulling it out of context, then extrapolating.

A script I reviewed for a political group opposing Navy aviation use of a remote airstrip contained a line about jet noise being “deafening and dangerous.” While it’s true if you happen to be standing 100 feet behind an engine on afterburner, the distance they’d have to keep from a military accessible runway would mean they’d be far from deafening and dangerous.

They added “The navy has other options...” Like what? The PAC doesn’t outline those options honestly to give people an opportunity to decide.

“Choose to encroach on our land...” I have news for you. The government owns all the land. You may have a title, but the state and federal governments hold domain. If they didn’t, they would not be allowed to come on to your property without your permission.

“North Carolina receives nothing and Virginia reaps all the benefits.” What benefits? A box of marbles? Fuel spills? Naked hula at the BOQ on Twofer Tuesday?

Political spots are by design highly unbalanced and rely on the high-octane fuel of FUD: fear, uncertainty, and doubt. In its most blatant usage, FUD is the emotional hype that you find used by politicians and television news. Both should come with a massive disclaimer: Caution – We will be making mountains out of molehills... sound bites at Six!

Car dealers and furniture dealers, and anyone with a price point that varies on something like a credit score essentially do the same thing. You are promised the luxury model, but given the price on the economy edition. So, why do it?

I remember writing station contest promos that ran for a full sixty to ninety seconds because it took that long to explain the contest. In hindsight, I now see how idiotic it was. If you have to spend that much time explaining something, then it’s too complicated. Simplify. For ad copy, throw out the junk-phrases, write conditionalizing statements into the script, and keep it simple enough so it doesn’t require extensive explanation.

It’s not rocket science, it’s only advertising. It functions on a few basic principles that have not changed. And, one of the pillars is keep it simple. Simple is remembered. Remembered is good when the listener enters the market for a product or service.

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