/ Shopping

Free isn’t free if it’s already included

When is ‘free’ not actually free? When it’s included in the package price, or so says the Advertising Standards Agency – it has rapped John Lewis for advertising a computer as having a ‘free two-year guarantee’.

After a complaint from Dixons, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has banned an ad from John Lewis for promoting Apple computers with a ‘free two-year guarantee’. Why? Because the ASA believes that the guarantee was always part of the computer’s price and so could in no way be described as ‘free’:

‘We told John Lewis not to refer to guarantees as “free” unless they could show that the products had been on sale at the same price without the guarantee, or with a significantly shorter guarantee.’

That seems pretty fair to me. If you can’t prove that a product would be the same price without the guarantee, how can you describe it as free?

Free isn’t always free

The question is whether such analysis of the word ‘free’ can be taken even further. Is there room for companies to describe something as ‘free’ if money is leaving your wallet? In short, if you’ve spent dosh on it, can it be free?

In response to the ASA, John Lewis looked at the issue from another angle. It argued that since the price of the Apple computer wasn’t increased by including the guarantee, it could describe this extra as free.

John Lewis then cited uses of the word free for other additional services, such as ‘free delivery’ and ‘free recycling’. It’s a good point. We understand what these uses of ‘free’ mean – are they misleading us as well? Not really, as when it comes to both of these, the products will be the same price if you decided not to take up the free delivery or recycling.

But, what about mobile phone networks describing texts and calls as ‘free’ when they’re included in your £10 a month top-up? Surely that’s what the £10 is buying? Have you seen any other examples of companies claiming something is free, when really it isn’t?


‘Buy one and get one free’ is perhaps the most obvious example. For thirty years I have been annoying shop assistants by correcting them, saying that they mean ‘included in the price’ rather than ‘free’.

One of my other pet hates is ‘mistakes cannot be corrected after leaving the till’ or such nonsense, which really means ‘mistakes will not be corrected’.

Well I’m glad that the ASA is doing something useful, even though I don’t think the consumer is likely to be misled.

Steamdrivenandy says:
3 December 2011

It’s a shame JL are the ones that have taken a rap on this one, I always hoped they wouldn’t sink into the weasel word form of promotion and advertising that is the hallmark of a lot of other retailers. They should be above such things.
As to other examples, I haven’t seen it recently but we once stayed at a hotel where the owner ‘cruised’ the restaurant of an evening calling out ‘free extra coffee’, meaning you could have as many refills as you liked without extra charge. Mind you in that particular case it was all part of the bonhomie of an excellent restaurant and didn’t cause offence.

I’ve tried to claim under John Lewis “never beaten” price promise in the past unsuccessfully. John Lewis claimed that as they include a “free” milk jug with their coffee machine then the products were not the same so they would not price match.

I laughed when I saw that Dixons had complained about JL. Dixons owns Currys, PC World, Pixmania, etc.

Andy says:
3 December 2011

I think this is unfair on John Lewis. If they as a retailer feel they are able to offer a guarantee which others charge for then against the wider marketplace it is valid to describe it is free. Anyone doing a price comparison would take this into account when deciding where to shop. I have found nearby retailers who price match with JL but have felt it necessary to also include a longer guarantee where the products are the same (but not on products which JL didn’t sell). Similarly retailers further from a JL have matched on price but it was extra for the longer guarantee.

It is a bit rich for Dixons to have complained to ASA. They have been the kings of the pay (a lot) extra for longer guarantees for quite some time. I remember companies such as them being taken to task (was it by Watchdog?) for what was seen as a rip-off.

I am waiting for Microsoft to complain that they have purchased some software with bugs. 🙂

This is already covered by Schedule 1 of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, which states that “describing a product as ‘gratis’, ‘free’, ‘without charge’ or similar if the consumer has to pay anything other than the unavoidable cost of responding to the commercial practice and collecting or paying for delivery of the item” is a commercial practice which is in all circumstances considered unfair. See http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2008/1277/schedule/1/made

This legislation is designed to stop advertisers describing a product or service as “free” and then charging for it by another means, e.g. “Free £1 coin for every reader – send £4.95 to cover postage and packaging.” or “Free overnight stay – bed linen and towels extra”.

To my knowledge, JL are not proposing to make a charge for the free warranty.

Judging buy Currys’ website, it would appear that what DRG really don’t like is John Lewis giving the consumer any information about a (free) standard warranty on Apple products.

I’ve just at the Apple MacBook and iPad 2 web pages and there is no mention of any manufacturer’s warranty, just the expensive DRG extended warranty.

Since when is deliberate withholding of information to con consumers into buying unnecessary warranties preferable to the use of a generally understood English word “free” – meaning provided without charge?

Come on ASA. You need to get a grip and stop tinkering with semantics to the detriment of consumers. If you carry on like this it will be safer for retailers to provide no information at all. How does that help?

frances says:
8 December 2011

Only mouse traps have free cheese.

(old Russian saying)

Like others here, I think the ASA have got it wrong on this occasion and I concur in John Lewis’s reaction to the ASA. They will no doubt come up with a different phrase [such as “included”]. Since when has it been against the public interest for a shop with a better offer to declare it in an open and honest fashion. To Dixons I would say “Put up or shut up” – match JLP’s guarantee or bite your tongue.