I'm not even sure how to phrase the question, but I'm looking for a word that describes a situation where a person doesn't necessarily act unethically, but in which the ambiguity they create benefits them when mistakes are made (and therefore they have no incentive to keep the mistake from happening again).

Consider the news from last month where Apple was found to have deliberately slowed down older iPhones through a software update. Apple's argument was that old phones that have weak batteries can deplete very quickly if there's a sudden demand for power, and that they were trying to "preserve the user experience" by slowing the phone down to compensate. Indeed, 3rd-party sources have confirmed that replacing an old iPhone's battery does, in fact, restore performance. Apple maintains they did not intend to deceive anyone, but because they didn't disclose what they did, the slowdown caused some users to buy a new iPhone, and Apple makes more money from selling new iPhones than it does replacing batteries on old ones.

This could also apply to a lot of itemized bills one receives from service contracts; say a phone or utility bill. The bills are long and contain lots of fees, taxes, and technical jargon that make it difficult to understand. The company is not deceiving you intentionally, but the complexity of the bill makes it easy to accidentally overcharge you.

I'm pretty convinced there's a word or phrase for this. Or perhaps an idiom.

I thought maybe obfuscation or plausible deniability, but both of those terms imply deliberate fraud.

  • 1
    Cynically, I'd call it "marketing plan" aka "conning customers"
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 16, 2018 at 23:57

3 Answers 3


incidental benefits

Using your examples:

  1. Apple was trying to be helpful to customers having older phones. But what actually happened is that some customers upgraded to newer phones. That's an unintended consequence and an incidental benefit to the company.

  2. Utility and telecom companies itemize many expenses in their bills. In my area (New York) much of this itemization is mandated by laws and regulations. The bills become very complex and, as a result, customer's are less likely to detect errors. That's an unintended consequence of itemization and/or adherence to the laws and regulations. When those errors bring in more money for the company, they become an incidental benefit.


In academic economics we talk about "obfuscation", without any innuendo of fraud but probably with some connotation of doing it on purpose. See for instance http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.3982/ECTA5708/full


That actually is a typical trigger for the ironically employed "honi soit qui mal y pense" comment, the motto of the Order of the Garter.

Roughly "a knave is who thinks ill here".

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