Fine Print Needs Careful Review

28 March 2002

Advertising circa 2002 can be so technically squeaky clean that it crosses the line into a bad joke. As I was reading my recent issue of PC Magazine, I was struck by a Dell ad. It had five neat columns with computer systems for sale. The sixth column was the fine print. Imagine that one-sixth of the ad is fine, and I mean fine-little-itty-bitty print. Let's look at the fine print and translate it into English.

Let's start with a simple statement in the ad. It says "1-Yr Next Business Day On-Site Service." Now, I don't know about you, but to me that means that if my computer breaks within one year, Dell sends a technician to my home or office the next business day to fix it. Right?


Well, thankfully Dell gives us a footnote to clarify this clear language. It says that, "Service will be dispatched, if necessary, following phone-based troubleshooting." Translated that means that you had better be prepared to get verbal instructions on dismantling your system, running diagnostic software and spending what could be two hours plus on the phone with a tech support rep before they will finally conclude that you need the "On-Site Service" for which you paid extra.

Later it even adds that, "Availability varies." Wonder what that means.

I suspect it means that if nobody is available to visit you the next day, they can say, "We warned you when we said 'Availability varies.'"

So, the final translation of "1-Yr Next Business Day On-Site Service" is, "If your system breaks within one-year and after you spend hours with us on the phone acting as our remote hands, if you still can't fix it and we think you really tried, if we have a tech available in your area, we'll send him to your site."

Now, what's interesting is that this footnote for this warranty offers no clarification of "on-site." I would think that includes my home. Well, maybe it doesn't.

You see, in another column I see a warranty that includes "1-Yr At-Home Service." If you're wondering how that's different from "on-site" service, we have to look at another footnote. This footnote talks about "At-Home or On-Site service." I suppose that by negative implication, they come to your home only if your particular system comes with "At-Home" not merely "On-Site" because "on-site" doesn't include at-home. That's clear, right? I suppose so. I guess…..

Now, I know that so far Dell has been wonderful in using the fine print to muddle the clear words in the large print. So, just in case you think you now understand what you're getting, I hate to tell you that even the fine print leaves you wondering because it says, "Other conditions apply." I'm glad that they clarified that.

In case you want clarification on anything in the ad, you'll be pleased to know that they do give you an 800 number and an information filled website. The ad does everything it can to encourage you to use the website except when it comes to warranty information. For warranty information, the fine print tells you that you should write to Dell - using the good ol' fashioned post office. That's interesting since I found detailed warranty information on the website. Somehow, it doesn't look like Dell wants to make it too easy for you to read too much fine print.

I suppose that if you want the best warranty, you should buy their "CompleteCare Service." After all, we all know what "complete" means.

"Complete" can't have a footnote because then it wouldn't be "complete," right? Well, guess again because "CompleteCare" doesn't include theft, or loss, or damage due to fire. I'm going to call that Mr. Webster fellow and suggest he change that dictionary of his because it's wrong.

If you want to see the details of the "CompleteCare Service," you'll be pleased to know that if you type in a 67-character address into your browser, you'll find all the details except, of course, the related warranties. For warranty information, the website doesn't link you to the answer. Rather, it says, "For a complete copy of Guaranties and Limited Warranties, please write Dell USA, L.P., Attn: Warranties, One Dell Way, Round Rock, TX 78682."

Some systems give you six-months of "DellNet by MSNĀ® Internet Access." Hey, it's free. "Free" has got to be as "free" as "complete" is "complete" - right? Now, if you've read this far, you know that "free" isn't quite what it used to be.

First, you have to register "within 30 days of invoice" and accept their Terms of Service. That's reasonable enough, but did you know that "free" means that "You agree to be billed monthly fees after the initial service period." Translation - they want your credit card number before you can register for your free six months.

Have no fear though. You can cancel at any time. Do you think that they may be betting that you won't remember to call and cancel after six months. Moreover, if you do call, I wonder how long you have to sit on hold waiting for the MSN Customer Disservice Representative so that you can cancel.

I suppose that it's good to know that our American tradition of "the fine print" is alive and well.

Mark Grossman's "TechLaw" column appears in numerous publications. Mark Grossman has extensive experience as a speaker as well. If you would like him to speak before your group or corporate meeting, please call (305) 443-8180 for information.

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