Maybe it’s a sign of the times, but “free” of equivalent offers are becoming ever more popular attention-grabbing devices. The problem is that sometimes big name advertisers who maybe should know better are falling foul of the rules governing when the term can be used. Omar Buchionni reports.
Who: Grand Central Railway Company, Aer Lingus and Sport Newspapers
Where: Advertising Standards Authority
Law stated as at: 20 February 2009
The ASA (Advertising Standard Authority) has recently considered four ads which received complaints as to the use of the word “free” or equivalent claims concerning (a) tickets; (b) air fares; (c) newspaper gifts and (d) tokens.
Grand Central Railway Company Ltd promoted a “FREE RAIL TRAVEL TO LONDON” on the front page of the Hartlepool Mail. Text inside the newspaper stated “FREE rail travel to London when buying a Grand Central return ticket.
Complaints were about the availability of the tickets and whether the front page of the newspaper was misleading.
The ASA considered that customers had a reasonable prospect of taking up the advertised offer and did not uphold the complaint on the availability of the tickets. However, the ASA considered the claim “FREE” was misleading since the free ticket to London was dependent on buying a return ticket from London (which was equivalent to half the price of a round trip fare to London).
Ryanair challenged whether a regional press ad for Aer Lingus which stated “NO AER FARE Just pay taxes and charges […]” (a) was misleading because customers would have to pay the non-optional charges that applied and (b) failed to quote the price of the flights inclusive of all non-optional taxes, duties and fees.
Despite the headline claim “AER FARE” was immediately followed by specification that taxes and charges were payable, the ASA considered that readers could nevertheless infer that the flights were “free”. Basically, the ASA did not accept that a headline price could be exclusive of non-optional taxes and duties payable by the consumer.
A complaint was raised in relation to a press ad featuring the model Michelle Thorne. The ad stated “FREE DVD IN NEXT SUNDAY’S SPORT, MICHELLE THORNE STRIPS AND TALKS SEX”. The text continued “Plus her mega rude home porn film! ..fans will love next week’s fantastic giveaway.”
A “reader” challenged the use of the word “free” because in order to play some parts of the DVD it was necessary to call a premium rate number and obtain a code which unlocked the footage.
Netcollex Ltd pointed out that the basic DVD was distributed free with the newspaper, as advertised and it was only the “mega rude home porn film” which, being bonus footage, required a call to a premium rate number.
Despite this, the ASA considered that not enough of a distinction was made between the free to access material and the content for which a premium rate call had to be made. As a result, the regulator held that readers would incorrectly infer from the wording including the “giveaway” reference that all the content referred to was accessible completely free of charge apart from the costs of the newspaper.
Accordingly the complaint was upheld on this count and on the basis that the ad was “misleading by omission” by omitting pricing information for the premium rate call.
Two readers complained about the use of the word “free” on a national press promotion which stated “FREE HOME ENERGY MONITOR – Simply phone our special hotline on […] and then collect three tokens” because they had to call a premium rate number to claim the tokens.
The newspaper explained that the service was necessary to ensure that they could fulfil all the orders (and collect data for the respondent’s name and address) and that the service was charged at the lowest tariff available (30p).
The CAP Code states “An offer should be described as free only if consumers pay no more than the minimum, unavoidable cost of responding to the promotion”. As a premium rate telephone number goes beyond the minimum cost, the use of the word “free” was misleading.
Why these matter:
The ASA looks into the various types of the “free” claims very carefully. Promoters should therefore follow the rules on the use of the word “free” and ensure that statements used are true and not misleading. The statements must give a true picture of the product / offer so that in case of a complaint, promoters are able to substantiate the “free” word used.