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The right to be free

17 November 2008
Advertisers, retailers, manufacturers and publishers have for many years run promotions allowing consumers to get their hands on free products. Understandably, these promotions are usually very popular and successful with consumers.

However, recent changes to legislation have imposed conditions on when the word free can be used in conjunction with a promotion. The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 state that the word free can only be used if the consumer has nothing to pay other than the unavoidable cost of responding to the promotion, and collecting or paying for delivery of the free product.

Last month, Mirror Group Newspapers Ltd and Express Newspapers (trading as The Daily Express), were the subject of adverse adjudication by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which highlighted these changes. In each case, the ASA upheld complaints which had been made against the papers that promotions they had run were not truly free.

Express Newspapers had run a promotion offering readers a free AA road atlas from Somerfield, worth £6.99. Readers had to cut out a voucher to claim the atlas. Readers could either claim the atlas in store, or claim by posting the coupon, together with a cheque for £3.99 to cover the cost of postage, packaging and administration.

In relation to the postal route to claiming the atlas, the ASA was not satisfied that the promotion was free. This was because an element of the cost was stated to be "for administration". The ASA were also not shown evidence that readers claiming the atlas by post would pay no more than the true cost of delivery. In other words, it was found to be in breach of the ASAs code.

The Mirror Group advertised an offer for a free USB memory stick. To get the USB stick, consumers had to enter their details online and pay £1.99 for postage and packing. Alternatively they could send a self-addressed envelope together with a cheque for £1.99.

The Mirror Group admitted that the advert should have included a free route, in which consumers could send a self-addressed envelope, with stamps to the value of the cost of return postage only, as opposed to the sum of £1.99.

The ASA in each case held that the adverts must not be repeated in their current form.

In addition to ruling on issues relating to the use of the word free, the ASA also has powers to review and adjudicate on adverts that mislead (in particular, those comparing rival products) or offend. There are specific rules in respect of food and drinks, health and beauty, advertising to children, nutrition claims, environmental claims, gambling and prize promotions.

Breaches of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 can also be enforced by Trading Standards or the OFT, which could possibly lead to a prosecution and a fine.

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The content on this page is provided for the purposes of general interest and information. It contains only brief summaries of aspects of the subject matter and does not provide comprehensive statements of the law. It does not constitute legal advice and does not provide a substitute for it.

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