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Free offers must truly be free, ad watchdog rules

A newspaper and advertiser have been told to ensure that any offer advertised as being free has a genuinely free route to entry. Advertising regulator the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has told the companies not to repeat a rule-breaking ad.22 Oct 2008

Companies are only allowed to advertise something as free if there is a way for a consumer to obtain the item at a cost no higher than standard postage costs.

Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN) and advertiser Expansive Media were told by the ASA not to repeat the publication of an advert which broke those rules.

Expansive Media headlined a national press advert 'Free USB memory stick'. Consumers had to enter details online or send a stamped addressed envelope to the company. In each case they had to pay £1.99 to cover postage and packing.

The ASA received a complaint about the ad which said that the memory stick could not be free if £1.99 had to be paid for it. The ASA agreed.

"The ASA noted the only amount published in the ad was £1.99, which was higher than the cost of postage alone," it said in a ruling. "We therefore considered the product could not be described as a 'Free USB memory stick'."

The ASA has specific rules governing free offers and free trials, and these state that a free entry route must be provided if something is described as free. Not every entry route has to count as free, but one must be available.

An entry route is counted as being free if the only costs associated with it are standard postage or standard telephone costs.

"Because the ad did not include a genuine 'free' route, by which readers would pay no more than the minimum unavoidable cost of delivery, we concluded the ad breached the code," said the ASA.

The ASA's code says that:

"An offer should be described as free only if consumers pay no more than: a) the minimum, unavoidable cost of responding to the promotion, eg the current public rates of postage, the cost of telephoning up to and including the national rate or the minimum, unavoidable cost of sending an e-mail or SMS text message b) the true cost of freight or delivery c) the cost, including incidental expenses, of any travel involved if consumers collect the offer. Promoters should not charge for packing, handling or administration."

Expansive Media and MGN said that the advert should have included a free route by which users could receive the memory stick by sending a stamped addressed envelope without paying any additional fee, but that it had been omitted.

The ASA told the advertiser and publisher to refrain from republishing the advert. "The ad must not appear again in its current form. We told Expansive Media and the Mirror not to describe products as "free" if the ad did not include a route by which readers would pay no more than the genuine minimum unavoidable cost of delivery," it said.