The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP) created and maintain the advertising industry's codes of practice, which are independently enforced by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). CAP and BCAP have recently produced an updated guidance note for marketers on how the word 'free' can be used in promotions.

The CAP and BCAP codes of practice already state that a marketer 'must not describe a product as 'free' if the consumer has to pay anything other than the unavoidable cost of responding to and collecting or paying for delivery of the item'.

Rule 3.24 of the CAP code and Rule 3.25 of the BCAP code specifically state that marketing communications must not describe items as 'free' if:

  • the consumer has to pay packing, packaging, handling or administration charges for the 'free'   product;
  • the cost of response, including the price of a product that the consumer must buy to take advantage   of the offer, has been increased (except where the increase results from factors that are unrelated to   the cost of the promotion); or
  • the quality of the product that the consumer must buy has been reduced.

The CAP code defines a consumer as 'anyone who is likely to see a given marketing communication, whether in the course of business or not'.

The new guidance focuses on the use of the word 'free' in the following two categories of offers:

Conditional purchase promotions

Marketers cannot describe an item as 'free' if it is only available by purchasing another product at a higher than usual price.  For example, in promotions such as 'buy one get one free', the paid for item must be sold at its normal price and not be of a reduced quality for the 'free' item to be accurately described as free.  

Package offers

Marketers cannot describe a package or bundle of products as including an item or feature for 'free' unless that item is distinguishable from the package and its addition has not increased the package price.  The item or feature must not be intrinsic to the product or service being advertised and must be able to be split from the package so that it is an additional benefit for consumers. The guidance note also clarifies that marketers are permitted to describe items or features within a package as 'at no extra cost' or 'inclusive' but they cannot be described as 'free' 'unless they have been recently added to an established package without increasing its price'.

Marketers using the word 'free' should review the detailed guidance here.