I spent my formative years, professionally speaking, at the Miami Herald. Many outstanding journalists have plied the craft there, from Al Burt, who, sadly, passed last week, to greats including Henry Kinney, John Pennekamp, Carl Hiaasen, Michael Browning, Dave Barry, Doug Delp, my current colleague Connie Prater, and on and on.
It was a fine training ground.
I bring it up, though, because it had some smart folks in the sales department, too, over there on the other side of the invisible fence present at any quality news site, the one dividing us journalists from the folks directly involved in making money.
In particular, the Herald’s ad department had a policy prohibiting advertisers from using the word “free.” They wouldn’t let the local car dealer say that you’d get “free” floormats if you bought a car. They wouldn’t let an advertiser say “buy three, get one free.” It was easier to ban the word than parse it.
I wish businesses today would adhere to that standard. But because that’s not likely, consumers have to be smarter about what the word “free” does and does not mean.
The word “free” has power. College marketing textbooks devote chapters to it. My edition of Webster’s dictionary includes 25 definitions of the word; the one at hand here is from the business world. It says that “free” means “with no charge or cost.” Whenever money is paid for products or services, by definition they are not free.
Unfortunately for consumers, that’s a definition that many in business ignore, particularly in the world of credit-related products.
There’s nothing new about contorting the word “free.” For instance, if you hear the phrase “free toy,” it’s likely you think of the candy snack CrackerJack. It has a “free” toy inside. But the toy is not free. For one to get the toy, one has to buy the snack. That makes it not free, just like the floormats, just like the fourth can of soup.
Abuse of the word “free” is especially prevalent in credit products. Look on the Web and you will see dozens of offers for “free credit” this and “free credit” that. Some of the products even come with catchy jingles. All of them have one thing in common: In order to get their product, you have to pay them. That means, despite what they say, it’s not free.
Because the word “free” is powerful, watch out for those who throw it around loosely.
See related: Free credit reports: How to get the ones that are actually free