As regulatory constraints tighten, advertising is increasingly riddled with legal caveats and explanatory footnotes. It's time to draw a line before we suffocate the creativity that's essential for great campaigns.
The asterisk* is now ubiquitous in advertising copy. Fearful that evil marketers might mislead or confuse an innocent consumer, watchdogs and legislators are demanding more warnings and explanations.
Of course, some of these are plainly warranted, such as:
*Not actual gameplay footage.
*Batteries not included.
*Your home may be re-possessed if you do not keep up payments on your mortgage.
Some asterisks provide useful reminders that if something looks too good to be true, it probably isn't. Campaigns for seductively low broadband tariffs provide a very current example of circumstances when advertisers need to be gently encouraged to tell the whole truth. The addition of an asterisk is a great way of absolving responsibility for a less than complete disclosure.
And there's a further category of footnote that might not be very effective but is founded on common sense and decency.
*Excessive consumption may have laxative effects.
*May contain nuts.
On a recent trip to Paris, I noticed a sensible warning of this last kind at the bottom of a billboard promoting Captain Morgan's Spice Rum. As is required with all alcohol ads, it emphasises that too much booze is bad for you. Consume in moderation, we are warned. Good advice. Thanks, global drinks giant!
Now look again. The headline proudly presents this product with the sub-heading: A LEGEND*.
But look closely and you might see there's one of those pesky asterisks*, notifying us that we may have overlooked some important information. Brace yourself. Here's the footnote:
For the avoidance of doubt, we're advised that Captain Morgan is a spirit drink based on Caribbean rum, inspired by one Captain Henry Morgan, a legendary privateer ('pirate') from the 17th century.
No doubt there were concerns that someone might challenge the brand's 'legendary' status or question the authenticity of historical links with its namesake.
This is clearly ridiculous. Whatever next?
Is all hyperbole in advertising destined to be undermined with a qualifying statement?
Should we allow the bureaucrats to crush the poetry of copywriting?
I fear this is a slippery slope...
*An 'asterisk' is a symbol used in text as a pointer to an annotation or footnote. Not to be confused with 'Asterix', the fictitious cartoon character created by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo.