Thoughts on Advertising: The Power (And Danger) Of “Free”

| By Randy Jones

It’s long been said that one of the most effective words you can use in an ad is “free.” The idea is that people love getting stuff for free, so offering them something for free will get a big response. It’s a rule a lot of companies still follow. How many TV ads do see that say “buy one, get one free” or offer something like a “free credit report”? How many online ads say “download our free white paper” or “get your free sample” just for giving them your email? And that’s the problem – these days it seems like virtually everyone is offering something for free, so “free” isn’t considered as powerful as it once was.

Advertising With The Word FreeEvery now and then, however, a “free” offer does strike a chord, and that’s when companies can get themselves into trouble. Because if you happen to give away something people really, really want, you’d better be prepared to satisfy a huge demand.

The most recent example of this happened in France, where supermarkets offering a 70% discount (not quite free, but close enough) on Nutella, were besieged by consumers. Mini riots occurred, with hair pulling, fist fights and lots of angry consumers who didn’t get their Nutella.

Then there was the Oprah-KFC debacle of a few years ago. To introduce their new grilled chicken, KFC had Oprah tell people to download a coupon for a free two-piece meal. Well, Oprah has quite a following, so millions did just that. The result was long lines, KFC outlets running out of chicken, and lots of angry customers.

In Britain, Hoover vacuum cleaners also got burned by a free offer: Buy a Hoover vacuum cleaner for at least 100 pounds and get airline tickets for two free flights to America or Europe. That’s quite a deal, and more than 200,000 people took them up on it – far more than Hoover had anticipated. The promotion generated 30 million pounds in sales but cost them 50 million pounds in airline tickets (and a lot of bad publicity).

There’s an important lesson here: The word “free” may be overused in advertising to the point where it’s almost meaningless, but people still look for it, and if they see something free that they really want, they’ll do almost anything to get it (including pulling some hair). So if you’re thinking of giving something away to promote your business, remember these two things –

  • Make sure it’s something you can afford to give away, if it turns out a lot of people want it.*
  • Make sure you have enough of it to give away, if it turns out a lot of people want it.*

*Of course, you could just give away something that a lot of people DON’T want, but that may not help your business very much.

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