When “FREE” doesn’t mean “FREE”

SMALL 300x199 When “FREE” doesnt mean “FREE”Recently, a mailer was sent out that advertised a FREE service valued at over $800.  A consumer called and asked how it could be free.   The answer… “It wasn’t.”  Sometimes, consumers get so caught up in the excitement of a valuable product or service being offered at a free or reduced rate that they forget to ask this very important question.  Of course, the advertisement says “FREE” so how could it not be, right?  How can an advertiser not be sincere about an offer?  Does this REALLY happen?!  You bet it does!  This is why the Better Business Bureau has a Code of Advertising.

In this particular scenario where a free product was offered, there were signs throughout the mailer of extra charges.  An installation cost was included, and a 3-year service agreement was mentioned on the back side of the mailer in very small print.   The amount of the service agreement amounted to nearly $1500!!!  I don’t know about you, but the last time I checked in the dictionary, “free” did not mean 100s of dollars or even 1000s.  So how does a company get away with making this claim of free?

Technically, a business should not use the word at random, unless they truly mean it.  There are exceptions though.  Frequently in advertisements, a business will promote something as being “free,” but then in order to get the product or service, there are accompanying fees.  For instance, if there is a cell phone give away, you will have to pay for the service if you want to use your phone.  Also, this service may translate into a 3-year contract with monetary penalties should you decide to terminate it early.  This practice is not uncommon and is used in various industries.

It is not acceptable to mask or to try and hide costs with small print or confusing verbiage.  The Code of Advertising specifically says that if a “free” offer is contingent upon another purchase, this fact must be stated “clearly and conspicuously together with the offer.”  The use of an asterisk next to the word “free” referencing a footnote is not an acceptable practice.

Should you run into an advertisement that you feel is confusing or misleading, please contact your Better Business Bureau.  It may be something that the Advertising Review Team needs to address.  For more information on the BBB’s Code of Advertising, visit http://www.bbb.org/us/bbb-code-of-advertising or give us a call.


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About Kristal Heffley

Ad Review and Social Media Specialist of BBB serving Northern Indiana. Kristal spends a great deal of time learning, writing about, and educating the public on scams of the day. She also is quite the social-media enthusiast and community partner. You can follow her posts, i.e. BBB serving Northern Indiana on Facebook, Google Plus, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, and of course, our blog.