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Shining Us On

Q: I bought one of those TV products, Simoniz Fix It!—for removing scratches from your car. It cost $19.95 plus shipping and handling and came with a ‘30-Day Money Back Guarantee.’ When I got the package, the written guarantee said refunds would only be given on ‘unopened’ products. I called the company and asked, ‘How can you call it a product guarantee if the guarantee is voided by opening the product?’ The agent replied that I had actually received two products—one to fix scratches on appliances and another for autos—and that if I used one of the products and wasn’t satisfied, I could get a $10 refund on the other. Of course, I never asked for both products, so I returned everything. They refunded the purchase price, but I ended up paying shipping both ways. This is just wrong. –Nancy Brown, King of Prussia, Pa.

A: Your story is a clear example of how fuzzy advertising claims can be.

Simoniz Fix it! is promoted on TV by pitchman Billy Mays, also famous for his energetic salesmanship of OxiClean, Kaboom, and the unforgettable Hercules Hook. These are high-volume, low-cost sales operations with simple products that don’t usually require a lot of customer service. You can order online or call a fulfillment center’s toll-free number.
My first move in researching your claim of the guarantee-that-doesn’t, involved a visit to the Simoniz Fix It! Web site. Sure enough, plastered right above the credit card entry form in bold red type was the 30-day money-back guarantee. I poked around and was not able to locate any language that modified the terms. I next called the sales line. Both the voice mail recording and an order taker confirmed that the guarantee was for unopened product.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines “guarantee” as “an assurance of the quality of or of the length of use to be expected from a product offered for sale.” Clearly, Simoniz was only offering a refund; product quality was not guaranteed. When I asked what being “guaranteed” was, the order-taker offered to put me in touch with someone higher up in the company.

The following day I received a call from the Simoniz vice president of operations, Frank Zilka, who repeated that the guarantee was for “unopened” product. I challenged his use of the word “guarantee,” pointing out that what they really were offering was just a refund. I reminded him that Federal Trade Commission regulations state that if a company wants to mention a guarantee, it must tell consumers how to get all of the details on that guarantee.

Zilka defended his company and claimed that the policy was clearly spelled out. However, when we both looked online, no such wording existed. Zilka acknowledged that the policy fell short of a guarantee and promised to check with his company about making changes.

Later that day, Zilka called back to inform me that Simoniz had agreed to put the word “conditional” before “guarantee” on the Web site and to spell out the details on the customer service page. Zilka will be sending you a complete Fix It! product kit—and you won’t have to pay for shipping. Sorry you had to go through all that, Nancy. We weren’t able to improve the terms of the offer, but thanks to your letter, we were able to touch up Simoniz’s language.