Fine print: the art of camouflaging warnings, disclaimers, or limits as innocent sounding background noise. Let’s face it, our world elevated fine print to an art form today. Listen to a pharmaceutical ad and the soothing voice delivering the fine print warnings does so in a tone that lulls you almost to sleep, while delicately warning of dire, life-threatening side effects and potentially embarrassing unintended physical consequences. Fine print is almost like the stranger who whispers, “Hey, over here, yes you. Got a minute? Wait until you hear this!”. Freudian fine print is when the truth comes out. “Biggie” doesn’t just describe the meal, it describes what we’ll soon look like after a diet of those meals. Thanks, Wendy’s!
Fine print is fine for a reason . . . to minimize the message it contains. Put a whisper next to a yell and tell me what you hear. We find fine print frequently in instructions and in warranties. It seems like everyone’s first word in warranties is “limited”. Just once I’d like an “un” in front of that! When we look at new products, we try to figure out who is protecting whom. Is the warranty an expression of confidence and commitment or is it a legal shield to hide behind. One-sided warranties that protect the manufacturer from consumers are just another way to circle the wagons. Rope-a-dope fine print is designed to wear you down until you run out of fight.
As Aristotle said, “Well begun is half done” and knowing what you’re getting into is the most important play of the first quarter. You’ve seen enough fine print to know what to look for and after the fact is not the time to read the instructions or study the limitations of a warranty. We live in seacoast conditions with salt air exposure. We are subjected to conditions you just won’t find in Kansas, Dorothy. We’re more sailors than farmers in this marine environment and small print doesn’t like salt. We all need to be careful to put the right product in the right places. Manufacturers don’t install product, we do. They don’t know what it’s like on a 20 degree February day in Truro or Madaket, with a 20 knot wind, and you up 20 feet off the ground on pump jacks. Those conditions are not likely in their vocabulary, unless of course they have found their way into some small print.
Sometimes small print can be helpful, but that’s when it should be larger and underlined. We need to know what doesn’t work with what, and what limitations a product has. We need help in using products correctly instead of being on the wrong end of a wagging finger, after the fact. It’s really a two-way street: we can vote with our wallets and buy more of the products that are out to help and protect us and fewer of the products that don’t. We also can do a better job of reading instructions and taking them seriously. Remember that the small print is there to remind us that we are in charge of the order of use and compatibility of products used. Anticipate what needs to be done and do it the way the manufacturer intended. Don’t re-invent the wheel and don’t lean back on “this is the way I’ve done it for thirty years”. It’s a brave new world, Wilbur, in which nothing is the same as 30 years ago, nothing. Not the doors, windows, shingles, or even the lumber are the same as they were.
Here’s a challenge to take the small print pledge. Hold up your right hand and repeat after me, “I pledge to read the fine print before I start. I pledge to follow instructions and to cease raising my blood pressure ranting against the manufacturers who wrote them. I pledge to spend a little time reading ahead of time and save a lot of time I would otherwise have wasted on call-backs and do-overs”.