The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) has this week launched new guidance on the advertisement of ‘free trials’ or other similar promotional offer subscriptions. The guidance has been issued as part of National Consumer Week 2017 which this year is focusing on subscriptions and subscription traps.

Working in collaboration with other organisations such as Citizens Advice and National Trading Standards, CAP’s aim is to ‘raise awareness and understanding amongst consumers about subscriptions so that they are better equipped to make informed choices and know who to turn to if something has gone wrong’.

What is a Free Trial?

According to the guidance, a free trial is where a consumer ‘enrols in an ongoing payment arrangement to take advantage of a free trial product offer, test subscription, or other promotional benefit’. If the consumer does not cancel the trial they then become liable to make a payment, or ongoing payments, as part of the subscription plan to which they signed up.

Whilst free trials are not in themselves problematic, issues arise when consumers sign up to ongoing payment plans without realising they have done so. CAP believes that one of the main reasons for this happening is misleading advertising.

Guidance

The guidance states that advertisers must comply with two key principles to ensure that free trial advertisements (both on an advertiser’s own website and on other media) are not misleading:

Significant conditions (where the omission of such conditions or information is likely to mislead) must be made clear – this includes whether or not a paid subscription starts automatically unless cancelled, and the extent of the potential financial commitment; and

The significant conditions must be displayed in a sufficiently prominent position so that consumers will not overlook them – the guidance states that the significant conditions should ‘immediately follow the most prominent references to the trial or offer’ and should be (i) prominent and distinct from other information; (ii) clear and legible both in size and in clarity of font; and (iii) immediately visible (i.e. pop-ups are not sufficient).

The guidance also explains that where media space is ‘significantly limited by time or space’ (sponsored ads on search engines or extremely small banner ads, for example) advertisers are still expected to do all they can to include significant conditions. Advertisements must include ‘as much information about significant conditions as possible’.

The guidance can be found here.