JPMorgan Chase & Co. won an award from the Center for Plain Language, but not the kind it’s likely to brag about.
The organization gave its WonderMark award (as in “I wonder what they were thinking”) for unclear language to a letter Chase sent credit cardholders in February announcing changes to their accounts. Annette Cheek, founder of the plain-language organization, told National Public Radio last week that she read a sentence in the letter 10 times and was none the wiser about the bank’s policy.
Here’s a sample: "If we do not receive any Minimum Payment within 60 days of the date and time due, the Penalty APR will be applicable to all otustanding balances and future transactions on your Account. However, if we receive six consecutive Minimum Payments by the date and time due beginning with the first payment due after the effective date of the increase, we will stop applying the Penatly APR to transactions that occured prior to or within 14 days after we provide you notice of the APR increase. For balances that we stop applying the Penatly APR to, we will apply APRs that would have applied at that date if the Penalty APR had never been applicable."
In an interview in Corp. Magazine published in April, before the awards were announced, Cheek said that in many cases, unclear language is unintentional. But she cited credit card agreements as one example where a lack of claritiy might be by design.
"We’ll soon be required by law to be much more transparent and clear in our communications to you," the magazine quoted her as saying. "But for now we’re going to bury our new, much higher, rates and fees and other impediments to your understanding in as much intentional obfuscating language as our lawyers can come up with.”
Unclear language isn’t the only problem with the Chase cardholder agreement. Susan D. Kleimann, the president of Kleimann Communication Group and one of the contest’s judges, also noted that the document's “small, tight, dense text” make it hard to even to see the important information. “It makes one wonder how much they really wanted consumers to understand, or if saving paper was not a higher priority,” she said.
Christopher Balmford, an Australian who teaches plain-language courses and the emcee for the award ceremony, had some friendly advice. "Do you notice how much they talk about themselves?," he said. "There’s an awful lot of 'we'. They could talk about the reader a bit more."
For example, he said, the following sentence in the letter, 'We figure the daily balance for each transaction type,' could say instead, 'We figure your daily balance for each of your transaction types.'
"Suddenly, the reader can find themselves in the text — making it oh so much more likely they’ll keep reading," Balmford said. "After all, readers are more interested in reading about themselves than they are in reading about the organization that’s writing to them."
A spokeswoman for Chase declined to comment.