One of the best things about modern advertising is the fine print. This is the craven cover-your-ass verbiage that expensive lawyers advise their clients to put under an ad to limit the advertiser’s liability. Here is a list of things I’ve been advised not to do:
- Drive down a ski slope and do a barrel roll on a big jump.
- Erect an enormous structure with a narrow track and drive through flamethrowers high above the desert floor.
- Eat while lying on my back.
- Pull a trailer.
- Drive on Highway 1 at a reasonable speed on a sunny day.
- Drive in an empty warehouse.
- Drive on a city street at night.
Some of those things would be pretty stupid (and expensive) to attempt. Yet if I were to take all the automotive admonitions seriously, I wouldn’t be able to drive anywhere, ever. The sum of the auto warnings is, “Don’t use our product.”
Last night an ad reminded me not to drive very fast in a straight line on an unused runway, but oddly neglected to admonish me not to release a wild cheetah without taking measures to protect myself.
The ski slope barrel roll warning was actually phrased playfully, with the implied “yeah, we know this is ridiculous, but we’re going to do it anyway.”
People will blame our litigious culture for these silly admonitions, but except for a few well-publicized (and usually misrepresented) cases, I don’t think someone sliding a pickup truck down a ski slope has much hope of suing Toyota, warning or not. I think there’s a culture of fear that makes boardrooms timid, just as parents drive their kids to school despite ample evidence that the kids are better off walking. It’s all about worst-case thinking.
Who benefits from that fear? Some guy on retainer to Mazda who gets paid five thousand bucks to look at the latest ad and say, “Put ‘Professional driver on a closed course. Do not attempt.’ at the bottom.” Based on Mazda’s lawyer not altering the text to mention angry carnivores, I wonder if he even watched the ad before submitting his careful analysis. What does Mazda get in return? The VP of marketing can tell the board “we asked a lawyer” if someone gets upset.
My strongest argument for why this is corporate cowardice rather than a reflection of our litigious society lies in Hollywood. There are no disclaimers in movies. Stupid people have died replicating stunts in movies. There was a movie where people lay on the double-yellow in the middle of a road. When a kid died replicating that stunt, the studio was not sued out of existence.
In the face of ample evidence that disclaimers are unnecessary and not even that useful when things do go wrong, advertisers still tell me not to operate my car in any circumstances. Hollywood is simply braver than Madison Avenue, as hard as that is to believe.