What’s the point of legalese read at hyperspeed?

You’re sitting in the car listening to the radio and a boisterous voice comes on to tell you about the deals available at the local dealership. Then comes a wave of rapidly spoken legal copy filled with terms and conditions.

Well-qualified lessees something something. Tax, title something something.

We’ve all heard them. And yet we can barely catch a word.

Susan Grant thinks this type of tacked-on hyperspeed disclosure is essentially pointless.

“Disclosures are only worthwhile if people can understand them,” said Grant, director of consumer protection and privacy for the Consumer Federation of America. “If they are spoken so fast that we can’t catch the details, I don’t think it’s meaningful disclosure.”

And yet these few seconds of verbal jumble serve important purposes. They give the dealership or manufacturer a way to avoid charges of misleading advertising, and to throw in the technical verbiage required by law when offering a deal that includes payment terms, rather than waste space in the rest of the ad.

If a dealership announces a $99-a-month offer, it must also explain whether the payment represents a lease, the term of the lease and number of payments.

No clear-cut rules

“Generally speaking, disclaimers have to be presented in a manner that’s sufficient to correct any misimpression that would be created by the ad in the absence of a disclaimer,” said Mark Glassman, a senior attorney at the Federal Trade Commission, which regulates ads for compliance with truth-in-lending laws and other rules.

The carefully worded disclosures also ensure that the dealership qualifies for co-op dollars, marketing assistance from a manufacturer for ads that promote its brand. Co-op dollars often come with a requirement that ads contain certain language dictated by the manufacturer.

While disclosures are intended to ensure compliance with federal and manufacturer rules, no clear-cut rules state how many words can be jammed into a few seconds of disclosure copy, or how fast the words can be read.

“The requirement is that somebody providing the disclosures or disclaimers in an audio context would have to state them clearly and conspicuously and in a way that the consumer would hear and understand,” Glassman said.

He said the FTC focuses on the substance of the ads, and has been very active in the auto finance area, especially since the 2010 enactment of the Dodd-Frank Act, which expanded the agency’s authority.

Most dealers understand the rules and aren’t trying to deceive customers, said a representative of a Detroit-area advertising agency that works with dealerships and didn’t want to be identified.

Alvin and the Chipmunks

But time is money. Dealers who buy 30-, 60- or 90-second ads want to pack in as much advertising copy as they can, plus jingles or slogans, to drive home their message. In a typical 60-second spot, says a sound engineer for the agency, that often leaves only five seconds to cover what would normally be about a 30-second discussion of terms of the offer described in the ad.

Despite how they sound, not all disclosure bites are artificially sped up. More often than not, the announcer just talks fast. But if the messaging doesn’t fit, a sound engineer can speed the clip, compressing the spaces between words and creating an Alvin and the Chipmunks effect.

One challenge for sound engineers is being unable to cut words or substitute shorter words because the manufacturer usually requires specific language to qualify for co-op dollars.

The bigger problem, Grant said, is that while the compressed disclosures help protect the advertisers from legal problems, they don’t do enough to inform and protect consumers.

“Whether it’s an intentional attempt to gloss over and obscure important information or whether the dealer says, ‘I’m paying for an ad that’s X seconds long, so I’m going to cram as much info as quickly as I can,’ either way, it’s a real disservice to consumers if that information is of any value to them,” Grant said.

The fast talk doesn’t necessarily account for many consumer complaints, she said, but “if you went on the street and started asking people about the fast talk, I’m sure you’d get a big reaction from many people saying it drives them crazy.”

Even with the FTC keeping a watchful eye over the practices in the auto industry, Grant said regulators should look at making the required disclosures more understandable.

“I’d love to see an agency like the FTC focus on this,” she said, “because it’s a practice that just seems to have been going on forever and I’m not sure that anybody’s really doing anything about it.”

Talk fast

Here is the text of a typical disclosure at the end of a radio ad:

“For well-qualified lessees with approved credit. Not all lessees will qualify for this payment amount. Twenty-four month, 10.5 thousand miles per year A/Z competitive conquest lease; $2,500 down plus first payment, tax and fees due at signing with Tier 1 approved credit; security deposit waived. Offer ends 4/1. See dealer for details.”

  • Length of time required to read this at a normal, conversational speed: 20 seconds
  • Length of time as read on the radio: 6 seconds
  • How much of the message spoken conversationally would fit in 6 seconds: “For well-qualified lessees with approved credit. Not all lessees will qualify for this payment amount. Twenty-four month, 10.5 thousand … “
  • Audio speed adjustment required to fit the 6-second message into 5 seconds: 1.4x