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Is it legal to advertise something as "free" that requires membership fee or entrance fee or purchase?

  • Example 1:

    • Free drinks if you buy this meal for $20

    vs

    • Unlimited refills if you buy this meal for $20

    In other words can a restaurant advertise free drinks even if you have to purchase a meal to get one.

  • Example 2:

    • Free seat if you buy this train ticket

    vs

    • Seat included in price of train ticket

    In other words, assume you always get a seat when you ride the train (no standing). Would it be legal to advertise "Free sets on train, tickets $50" effectively claiming you're paying only for the ticket but the seat is free.

  • Example 3:

    • Free case with purchase of this phone

    vs

    • Case included with purchase of this phone

  • Example 4:

    • Free games every month with $60 yearly subscription

    vs

    • New game included every month with $60 yearly subscription

    In other words, some game is advertised as free but it turns out it's only free if you pay $60 a year. The claim that $60 is covering your subscription but you can't play the game paying the $60.

  • Example 5:

    • Free use of all attractions with $200 park admission

    vs

    • Use of all attractions included with $200 park admission

    In other words could Disneyland advertise all their attractions as free if you pay $200 for admission to enter the park.

  • Example 6:

    • Free car with purchase of $35000 keys

    vs

    • Car for $35000

    In other words could some car dealer advertise "Free cars! (with purchase of $35k key)"

Are there any laws covering the use of the term "free"? Particularly in the USA but would be curious to know if any countries regulate this

  • better search term found: ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/… – gman Feb 18 at 5:55
  • In some cases, "free" is colloquially used to mean "no additional charge", and that can be relevant. "Free use of all attractions" makes it very clear that there's no additional charge, while "Use of all attractions included" doesn't explicitly say that. – David Thornley Feb 18 at 18:58
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According to this site in the UK apparently there are laws against calling something free if it was part of the entire package before or if was added later and the price went up

Example of the latter: LG sold a TV. They then added a sound bar, increased the price and listed the TV as TV for $XXX + free sound bar. They ran afoul of the regulations

Also adding something and calling the addition free is okay if the price didn't go up but you can only advertize it as free for 6 months. After 6 months the law considers it included by default and therefore no longer free.

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In the US, it is legal, as long as you include that conditional information. The word "free" is regulated at 16 CFR 251.1, especially (c):

When making “Free” or similar offers all the terms, conditions and obligations upon which receipt and retention of the “Free” item are contingent should be set forth clearly and conspicuously at the outset of the offer so as to leave no reasonable probability that the terms of the offer might be misunderstood. Stated differently, all of the terms, conditions and obligations should appear in close conjunction with the offer of “Free” merchandise or service. For example, disclosure of the terms of the offer set forth in a footnote of an advertisement to which reference is made by an asterisk or other symbol placed next to the offer, is not regarded as making disclosure at the outset. However, mere notice of the existence of a “Free” offer on the main display panel of a label or package is not precluded provided that (1) the notice does not constitute an offer or identify the item being offered “Free”, (2) the notice informs the customer of the location, elsewhere on the package or label, where the disclosures required by this section may be found, (3) no purchase or other such material affirmative act is required in order to discover the terms and conditions of the offer, and (4) the notice and the offer are not otherwise deceptive.

If you offer a free car and bury the condition "if you buy this really expensive key" on p 4 of the fine print, you would have run afoul of para (c) so could be pursued for deceptive advertising.

  • Technically, yes, but in practice the Federal Trade Commission won’t take action on, say, a small town restaurant. – jeffronicus Feb 19 at 2:31
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It’s unlawful to deceive or mislead - none of your examples do that.

  • That depends on your definition of deceive. I'd say it's deceiving to say "XYZ is free for $10". It's not free if it costs $10. It's also not free by definition if you have to purchase something else to get it. That price is then buying that something else. – gman Feb 18 at 14:09
  • If the word were used on its own it would mean that but in context it doesn’t and no reasonable person would think it does. This type of usage is very common and not likely to deceive. – Dale M Feb 18 at 19:47
  • At least the last example "Free cars! (with purchase of $35k key)" does seem to deceive / mislead. Especially if you'd do "FREE CAR!* (in little print) $35k key purchase required". – Peteris Feb 18 at 20:22
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As far as i know as long as FREE is FREE* and "*" is explained anywhere in the ad its fine. Never mislead people into thinking something is FREE, and always try to explain whats FREE and under what terms and conditions " small print "

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Buy one get one free

A relevant common example is "BOGO" offers that are a frequent promotion strategy. They include the word "Free" but that use is somewhat regulated.

In order to be legal to say that the second one is "free", it has to be at least mostly true; If I'm selling a $5 thingy and then set their price to $10 and advertise "buy one get one free!", then that'd run afoul of false advertising laws in most places, including at least parts of USA (e.g. California) and EU - as advertising a discount requires that discount to be at real; there are successful class action suits in USA regarding BOGO offers.

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