Masters of Obfuscation

A world of sleazy lawyers in cahoots with marketers

A couple of columns ago, I mentioned that I am coming down the home stretch on a new book: “WRITE EVERYTHING RIGHT: Let the world’s greatest copywriters show you how to make readers love your emails, letters, memos, blog, ads, white papers, annual reports, PowerPoint, articles, books, website and yes, especially your résumé.”

Throughout “WRITE EVERYTHING RIGHT” you will find a slew of tested, proven rules that will make what you write easier for your readers to understand and stay interested.

Suddenly, last week it occurred to me that a legion of writers spend their lives creating stuff that they hope nobody will read.

Mostly these people are lawyers.

It arrived with all kinds of promises that were negated by a series of cover-your-arse (CYA) disclaimers.

What you see is a textbook example of how lawyers and complicit marketers can come up with a way to tell customers they can be screwed with absolutely no recourse. The trick: make it so impossibly difficult to comprehend nobody will bother to read the thing.

Most of us receive millions of words a year by these scallywags, who work for manufacturers, marketers, the financial services industry, pharmaceutical companies and the like.

If You Want to Obfuscate, Here Are the Rules to Break
“Set your copy in columns not more than forty characters wide. Most people acquire their reading habits from newspapers, which use columns of about 26 characters. The wider the measure, the fewer the readers.” —David Ogilvy (NOTE: The columns in the UAL-Chase disclaimer are 190 characters wide.)

• “Type smaller than 9-point is difficult for most people to read.” -David Ogilvy (NOTE: The Disclaimer copy above is 7-point.)

• On the computer screen, iPad or smartphone, 9-point type is the equivalent to 7-point type or smaller in print.

• “Avoid gray walls of type.” —David Ogilvy

Denny Hatch is the author of six books on marketing and four novels, and is a direct marketing writer, designer and consultant. His latest book is “Write Everything Right!” Visit him at

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  • Ex-offender

    As someone who in a prior life helped create that "crap that would gag a maggot" the proper place to look is to your government and its regulators, who insist on ever increasing the amount of unread (and unreadable) disclosures that must be provided. The "Chase is not responsible for the failure of a third party to perform" disclaimer didn’t really need to be repeated 5 times, did it? Once should be enough for the target consumer to determine if that eliminates the offer from acceptance or not, but our government insists it be stated for each component of an offer.
    Don’t forget, while you may be a target customer, you are NOT who our government and its regulators believe must be told of each and every potential problem with an offer. That presumption of incompetence on the part of the regulators is what leads to the incomprehensible disclosures, which helps drive people to incompetence.
    My personal least liked is the financial ‘disclosure’ on car advertising on television. My interest is in the MSRP of a car, much less in the monthly payment or even the implied interest rate. It’s rarely available, even with freezing the ad as JohnnyP suggests.

  • jonathanblaine

    I am one for cutting down disclaimers to the bare minimum. I’ve learned many of them can be eliminated in the copy. The more the disclaimer, the less the result. There are almost always disclaimers on offers (even if it’s *batteries not included), but this offer is just plain unethical since it ls more likely to strike gold with a segment of the populace that doesn’t apparently read and/or understand (see: 2008 mortgage crisis). It comes with 20 coatings of Teflon spray.

    It’s not just the credit card companies that employ weasel lawyers (although they seem to excel at it). I’m looking at a cable company direct mail piece right now that I snagged for an example of horrid direct marketing. 1/3 of the entire back page is one long and width-of-the-paper disclaimer in 7 point type, and again with the Teflon. Only in the fine print does one discover that there is a multi-year contract involved and the special price expires only a few months into it. Then again, the front of the letter is set in 9 point sans-serif, and the campaign blanketed every home in the area with an introductory offer that current subscribers couldn’t get, so I shouldn’t be too surprised. It was probably cheaper to do distribute it that way, so I guess it was "to hell with the customers" who pay for its services. Yes, that part about the current customer who received the offer in his or her mailbox — but is ineligible — was in the mouseprint disclaimer…

    These are not marketers. They’re analog spammers.

    Show me a lawyer, and I’ll show you a pretty good way to kill your marketing efforts.

  • JohnnyP

    Even worse are the TV ads with 1500 words of gray mouse type that flashes on for about two seconds. Even if you manage to freeze an HD screen at the right instant, you still can’t read it.

  • David

    Hey Denny, Here’s a trick I’ll share with you and your readers. Yes, people’s eyes are naturally attracted to small type ("Aha! Here’s the catch!). And so rather than putting all that legal mumbo-jumbo in unreadable 6-point type, put in a reader benefit instead. Anyone remember reader benefits??? So Jane Doe’s reading our promotion looking for the small type that she thinks will finally convince her NOT to order, and lo-and-behold, what does she find? Something that does exactly the opposite – convinces her to order. Hope you’re well. David

  • rik

    "Creating crap that would gag a maggot."


  • guest

    I was taught that it is easier to read sans serif type on a computer screen, and a serif type on printed matter.

    But interesting to note that I don’t have a problem reading any font except certain types of script, so it isn’t a problem for everyone… maybe those who are dyslexic? Also noted that this article is in a sans serif font type…

  • http://W.R.MaxBendel W.R. Max Bendel

    I have flash player – RealPlayer, but still no media appears in your Masters of Obfuscation article. Thought maybe mine was broken, and I did a fresh download to be sure. Still the same. Nothing. Thought you might like to know.

  • Will Ezell

    Denny –

    Denny –

    Leaving all decisions up to you for a 2-page letter, and for a 6-page letter, (both of which you want the reader to read) which are your top preferred typefaces? If using 2 typefaces, which are your 2 favorite to combine?

    As an example, for both a 2-pager and a 6-pager, I prefer "Courier 10 BT" in 11 or 12 point as the main typeface, and Arial Black as the secondary typeface.

  • Writerman

    Love the article Denny. Why don’t we all forward a copy of this article to the Whitehouse and maybe, just maybe, someone will wake up that bunch of morons called congress to stop allowing companies to use this "fine print" crap in screwing the American public. Do I hear an amen on this one?

  • Stan

    If you think 6 pt or 7 pt type is bad, take a look at the March 2013 issue of Reader’s Digest, pages 26 and 27 of a 4-page ad (the disclaimer part) for Estring, a product for women. By my calculations, it’s in 4 pt type set 4-3/4 inches wide (full page). I’m surprised that it wasn’t set in reverse type, too. And while on the topic of writing stuff you don’t want read, how about those radio commercials, usually for sellers of cars or mortgages, with music behind the voice-over–a tip-off that the volume of the music will increase as soon as the super-fast disclaimer copy begins, to make doubly sure that no listener can hear what’s being said.