Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Free* Advice!

* Not really.

When you see the word "free" followed by an asterisk, you know that the advertiser means free in the sense of "not free."

Witness ye this from my inbox a few days ago:

The asterisk tells me that the "free" sample of fruit snacks will be mine all mine just as soon as I complete "program requirements" for some company that takes pains to inform me that it is not "endorsed, sponsored by or affiliated with any of the products, brands, or merchants listed above." Phew.

Perhaps needless to say, I declined to participate in the "gift program." "Free"--or rather, "free*"--sounded like too much trouble. If I want fruit snacks I'll buy them, and consider myself ahead.

I spent enough time in the advertising rack-- business! I mean business! that I know and appreciate the value of the word free. And I maintain that it is far more valuable than the word free*. I imagine there are a few people around who overlook the asterisk and thus are to a greater or lesser extent snookered into "participating" in a program. Or parting with cash for their "free*" treasure. Or both.

But even at this late date I retain enough optimism to believe that that number is indeed small, and that the majority of folks have long since wised up to the meaning of the asterisk.

And I maintain that those who have been snookered by the asterisk will refrain from putting themselves in that position again. Fool me once, etc.

I'm a bigger fan of the expression "free with purchase." Um, yes. A new and exciting use of the word "free," but again indicating "not free," and coming right out and saying so. I mean, isn't everything "free with purchase"? Big Macs, flat-screen TVs, used cars--I make a purchase (Big Mac, flat-screen TV, used car) and then it's absolutely free!

Meanwhile, here we are well into the twenty-first century and we are still in thrall to the hoary practice of pricing products mere pennies below some real or imagined break point, and sticking the word "just" or "only" in front of it as if that really convinces anybody that the purchase is inexpensive. Does anybody really believe that $24.99 isn't, for all practical purposes, twenty-five dollars? Does anybody, looking at an item priced $12.97, not think, "Huh! They want thirteen bucks for this piece of junk!"? Does anybody look at a catalog and become convinced that a given product is inexpensive because the copy says it's "only" $999.99?

    I wouldn't have bought it, except the ad said it was "only" $999.99, which makes it cheap. And anyhow, it was under a thousand bucks. I wouldn't have bought it if it cost $1000.00. That would have been too expensive. Unless they put "only" in front of it.

Anyhow, it's just "pennies a day"--another meaningless phrase. My house costs just pennies a day, after all, as does my car--several thousand pennies, to be sure, but still just pennies a day. And note that that's just pennies a day, which makes it all better, so no worries.

Well, make that no worries*: I actually do worry that we are raising a generation that believes the word is in fact spelled ef-ar-ee-ee-asterisk.

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