Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Does Free Ever Mean Free Any More?

Here's the email subject line I got:

Make 2011 a Smarter Year and Get a Free Wireless Device at Alaska Communications!

But when you open the email it says:

Buy a Smart Phone and get any wireless device FREE*.

Oh, yes, you have to buy a smart phone, first AND there's an asterisk.  That leads to:
Purchase of a Smartphone and a new 2-year contract required to receive free device. Free device must be accompanied by a new 2-year contract. Discount taken on least expensive device if both devices are Smartphones.

TRANSLATION:  Nothing is free here.  The cost of the extra wireless device is built into the smart phone and two year subscription cost.   We're charging so much for the two year subscription that we're still making a fat profit if we don't charge you more for the second device.  You're paying for the extra device, just somewhere else.  And I think it says that you have to buy another 2-year contract for the free device. 

Here's another example:

TRANSLATION:  It's free if you spend $85 or more.  Our markup is high enough that we can absorb the shipping price and still make a good profit.   There may be a discount from what they normally charge, but it's not "free."

Even Skype's offer of 30 minutes of free calls to land line phones (normally a few cents a minute) isn't 'free.'  They were off the internet for hours and so Skype users (especially those who pay) already paid through their inconvenience.  But you don't have to buy anything to get this free 30 minutes, maybe worth $.60 - $.90 for most people who take them up on this. 

Language changes over time.  New words are created, old words are used in new ways.  But the erosion of the word 'free' has been pretty deliberate.  It's a way that public relations people trick the lazy into buying something - by getting them to believe they are getting something free. 

There are still things you get free.  Most of Skype's regular service is free. (Except perhaps for the information they collect about you.) When you get a food sample at a market, it's free for you. (Though it's part of the marketing budget and those costs are factored into the cost of the product.)

It used to be that swindlers had to hide the deception, but it seems Americans are so lazy, that marketers can put all the details out there  in black and white and still get people to go along.  And as long as people buy products that have 'free' offer gimmicks attached, marketers will plaster free all over everything. 

1 comment:

  1. May I get you to buy some genuine imitation cr-p?

    I think that ethics and marketing are exclusive of each other. PT Barnum is credited* for having said it best, "There is a sucker born every minute."

    As a woman, the cosmetic industry has had me put off since I was 14 with "free (with purchase) gifts" at various sales. My mom called them 'gifts with strings attached.' Sometimes I bought, many times I didn't.

    Marketers don't have to live with our purchases, but we do. Consumer ignornace is an industry unto itself!

    *He denied having said this.


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