Be careful of the word ‘free’

Marketing Bites: How offering freebies could get you in hot water. Plus, Applebee’s Date Night Pass promo broke some hearts.
Free stuff
Be careful when marketing "free" offers. | Photo: Shutterstock
Marketing Bites

Tread lightly when advertising freebies.

That’s the message handed down this week by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which concluded that tax-filing software service TurboTax created deceptive marketing because it promoted “free” services for which many people did not qualify.

The FTC’s order prohibits the company from “advertising or marketing that any good or service is free unless it is free for all consumers or it discloses clearly and conspicuously and in close proximity to the ‘free’ claim the percentage of taxpayers or consumers that qualify for the free product or service,” the agency said in announcing its ruling. “Alternatively, if the good or service is not free for a majority of consumers, it could disclose that a majority of consumers do not qualify.”

TurboTax parent Intuit, in a statement shared with media outlets, called the decision “deeply flawed.”

If you’re reading a publication called Restaurant Business, it’s likely you’re not in the tax preparation business. Nevertheless, the FTC’s decision should serve as a cautionary tale for marketers of all stripes.

If you’re going to give products away, they need to be free for everybody. (And if they’re not free for everybody, your marketing language needs to be very, very clear).

How Applebee’s broke some date night hearts

We reported last week on Applebee’s Date Night Pass, a $200 offer that entitled cardholders to a discount of up to $30 each week on food and non-alcoholic drinks (for a value of more than $1,500).

For anybody who has lived through Olive Garden’s Never Ending Pasta Pass offers, the outcome of the Date Night Pass should be absolutely unsurprising: It sold out in under a minute, according to reports.

The casual dining chain told USA Today that tens of thousands of people tried to score a pass.

And some of those people, feeling jilted by Applebee’s, took to social media to air their heartbreak.

“When a supposedly reputable company makes a commitment and advertisement to the public, I do expect them to uphold their end of the bargain,” one woman posted on LinkedIn, saying that the site crashing due to demand “smells really fishy to me.”

Noted another on LinkedIn: “The problem with PR stunts like this is that they have to be handled incredibly carefully to ensure that companies don’t suffer a meaningful backlash when consumers realize that they have been treated like a commodity by a brand rather than as a loyal customer.”

Perhaps Applebee’s could kiss and make up with its fans, offering a coupon to those who felt spurned, to get them back in the door? It is almost Valentine’s Day, after all.


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