Sonic restaurants should better disclose the limits of their promotional offers, the National Advertising Division recommended in a challenge brought by a consumer.

The consumer reported that he visited a Sonic drive-in in March with a sign reading “Wake up! FREE COFFEE WITH ANY BREAKFAST BURRITO.” After ordering a junior breakfast burrito, the customer requested his free coffee. But a Sonic employee declined, saying he had to purchase a premium burrito to qualify for the offer. The consumer went to another restaurant and filed a complaint.

When contacted by the NAD, Sonic said the coffee/burrito promotion ended in January and any promotional materials should have been discarded. The company said it was “unsure” if the signage was held over from the promotion or was in fact a local promotion. Sonic directed the restaurant to discard the sign unless it intended to provide free coffee with any breakfast burrito.

The company also apologized to the consumer and offered him a $50 Sonic gift card.

While the NAD said it appreciated Sonic’s response, it emphasized that advertisers are responsible for all reasonable interpretations of claims, not simply the message they intended to convey.

“NAD determined that the claim ‘FREE COFFEE WITH ANY BREAKFAST BURRITO’ could reasonably be interpreted by consumers to include Sonic’s Junior Burrito. While the instant promotion has since ended, NAD recommended that, in future advertisements offering ‘free coffee,’ the advertiser clearly and conspicuously disclose any material limitations on the offer in close proximity to its ‘free coffee’ claim,” the NAD said.

To read the NAD’s press release about the decision, click here.

Why it matters: The decision is an important reminder to advertisers to always make clear and conspicuous disclosures of any material limitations for claims, and to keep in mind that advertisers are responsible for all reasonable interpretations of their claims, not just the intended message.