When free isn’t really free and when it is free

Published 9:50 am Friday, June 12, 2009

A few years ago a very effective television commercial was based on a soda pop or soft drink with the word free as part of its brand name. And because of the use of the word free, the allegedly confused star of this commercial thought he didn’t have to pay any money at all to purchase this beverage. After all, the label said it was free. The results were some amusing episodes regarding this particular product which may have been free of sugar and other harmful ingredients. Yet, one still pays real American money for a bottle or can of this beverage.

Up in Mankato the daily newspaper is named the Free Press. That’s the title and has nothing to do with the real price for this publication.

However, there are a few items one can get that are actually free. My best example originated with an advertisement I found in a recent issue of the Sunday Tribune. This ad was for a famous brand of chewing gum. With this ad was a coupon for a free package of this product. A stipulation printed on this coupon said it was worth up to $1.19.

Email newsletter signup

I took the coupon to a local store and had the thought the gum would likely cost more than the $1.19 limit and I would have to pay the difference with American money. Imagine my surprise when the clerk said the package of gum would only cost 96 cents. As a result, I actually received something for free.

In other ads we are challenged to get something for free, with a clearly stated stipulation. You buy one item for full retail price and get the second duplicate item free.

In retrospect, one could say this is a situation based on paying half price for each of those two items. And with many purchases there are real bargains with these two for one purchases. The use of the word free in this context is optional and maybe even questionable.

There’s a variation in this two-for-one concept which is being promoted by several magazines. For example, a one year subscription for one of these magazines is $15.97. But wait, there’s more! By sending in a postcard by first-class mail with the postage being paid by the publisher, you can have a second year subscription to the magazine at no cost. In other words, that second year is free.

A few years ago I purchased a one-year subscription to a regional magazine which had an added incentive of using a free subscription to send a second copy to someone somewhere else as a Christmas present. Now every fall I get several reminders to renew the two subscriptions for the price of one. Somewhere along the line there could be a legitimate question as to what the real price for a subscription to any of these magazines is.

One firm has managed to combine the words stimulus and free in their magazine ad campaign to sell World War II era rifles. Those rifles are supposed to be genuine Nazi German K98k Mausers on sale for just $399. But hold on, folks, there’s even more. The stimulus part comes with the free rifle accessories like cleaning items, ammo pouches, and other surplus trinkets listed as being worth $400. Maybe there’s a gimmick here to get rid of items considered to be surplus by the seller.

This alleged generosity is based on making a purchase of a specific product or paying the inflated shipping charges to get the supposedly free merchandise.

A good example of this is the recent offer of free armored safes. These safes are intended in part to safely store the 4,100 never-circulated U.S. Government issued coins the purchaser will be purchasing over an 18-month period to get the free safe.

Disregarding the shipping charges for that heavy safe, here’s a real mathematical challenge. The monthly charge for all those coins is $98. Now, multiply $98 by 18 (the number of months in the purchase agreement) and that’s the real price for the coins and the allegedly free safe.

Ed Shannon’s column has been appearing in the Tribune every Friday since December 1984.