The Psychology of Free, and Its Power Over You

Photo: Mhauri

I was told in college, and in most ad agencies I’ve ever worked in, that two of the most powerful words available to any advertiser are FREE and NEW. Of course, over the years, the word free has been abused and perverted by advertising jargon and now comes in many forms, including:

  • Free* (The * is a list of conditions that most people never read but wish they had.)
  • Free Trial (Sometimes it’s genuine; sometimes you get sucked into some nasty monthly payment.)
  • Risk-Free (This one’s just odd; it implies that there may actually be a risk.)
  • BOGO (buy one, get one) Free (Genuine enough, although lately it’s become BOGO half-off.)
  • Free and Clear (Often used in conjunction with buying large products.)

However, despite the various incarnations of free, it remains an incredibly powerful word, and its influence over us as consumers is magnetic. Who doesn’t want free stuff? But how, where, and why "free" is used is all part of an equation that can either draw you in or push you away. (See also: Advertising Jargon That Aims to Mislead)

Genuinely Free Deals Are Irresistible — If There’s a Good Reason

People love free, but they are clearly skeptical of it. They want to feel like they've earned the item, or that there's another good reason for it to be free.

If something really is free and there's a good reason for it, consumers love it. Free samples of food in the aisles of grocery stores always go like wildfire. People know they get a free sample to lure them into buying a full box or package. That’s a fair exchange.

If someone puts a fridge on Craiglist for free (more on that later) because they want it gone ASAP to make space for a new fridge, then that’s fair. There’s a good reason for the giveaway.

If you get free products for spending a certain amount of money, that’s acceptable. Spend $75 and get a free tote or bottle or perfume. Yes, that's a good deal. The thought is, “I spent more than I wanted to, so I get a reward.” That’s why genuine BOGO offers are so big.

The Reverse Psychology of Free

As much as we love the idea of free, we're also suspicious of its value. The following story may be an urban legend, but even if it is, it proves a good point.

A man had just purchased a new refrigerator for his home, and did not want to go to the hassle of selling his old fridge or hauling it away. So he put a sign on it saying “FREE to Good Home” and left it on the curb.

It sat there for days. No one wanted it. So, he put another sign on it saying “Fridge For Sale, $50.”

The same fridge that no one paid attention to was stolen within a day.

This is the reverse problem with free. Either people don’t trust it, or it diminishes the value of something to worthlessness. There’s this attitude of “why is it free; what’s wrong with it?” In the case of the fridge, people clearly thought it was a broken, old, or unusable object, otherwise it would have had a value. By attaching a value to the fridge, that problem was alleviated, and it was stolen.

Overall, Free Ain’t What It Used to Be, but It’s Still Great

Sadly, marketing and advertising firms have stripped a lot of the meaning away from free. It’s a shame, because when companies really do want to give away free products to increase awareness, they have a hurdle to jump over. But there are amazing free deals out there every day, you just have to keep your eyes open and remember to ask the right questions — Why is it free? What’s in it for them? What’s in it for me? Is there a hidden catch? Is it really free at all?

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Meg Favreau's picture

I was reminded of how much people dismiss free stuff when I was preparing to move across the country earlier this year. In pairing down my belongings, I offered up a lot of high-quality stuff for free -- to friends, on Craigslist, etc. -- that nobody snatched up. I ended up bringing most of it to Goodwill.

Guest's picture

The free fridge story may specifically be an urban myth, but I've seen it in action, and used it myself. My sister in law got a new mattress. To get rid of the old one she put it on the curb with a sign on it saying $10. It was gone within 12 hours. Trying to give it away free on craigslist didn't work. It sat for two weeks before she gave up and put it on the curb.

Guest's picture

I think in a retail or a commercial environment i.e. in a store, FREE will still work. If that fridge was in a store with a 'free' label, it will probably have gone because people happen to be in the store looking for a fridge.