12 July 2003

Consider the following not-hypothetical.

Famous Publisher puts out a book on investing ghostwritten for a small Illinois investment club. On its cover, the book trumpets that the investment club earned an annualized return of 23%—substantially over the market—to entice people to buy it. People do buy it. A few weeks after the book has been published, a nosy reporter starts looking at the actual hard numbers, and discovers a serious error: the 23% rate of return includes dues. Since investment club dues are actually part of capital and administrative expenses, they are not part of the return on an investment. The real rate of return was a hair over 9%, which is slightly below average for all investment advisors during that period. Nosy reporter publishes his findings in a newspaper with a large national circulation.

Several months later, Famous Publisher puts out a paperback edition of the book. The cover is identical to the cover of the casebound (hardback) edition, including the claim of a 23% rate of return. In small type on the reverse of the title page, the paperback edition notes that actual returns were 9%.

Naturally enough, lawsuits get filed, accusing Famous Publisher of false advertising for keeping the 23% return claim on the cover when it knew that figure to be grossly incorrect. What is/was the result? And was it right?

As usual, the answer is "it depends." But "it depends" in a way that should consider a recent Supreme Court decision that doesn't look like it has anything to do with book covers—only with telemarketers.

Thus, this pathetic attempt at a cliffhanger.