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ASA slams Amazon for misuse of ‘free’ in promotion

Wednesday March 4, 2015 at 7:10am
Amazon has been criticised by the Advertising Standards Authority over a promotion offering a ‘free’ 30-day trial of its Amazon Prime service, after complaints from consumers who did not realize they would be charged £79 if they failed to cancel with the trial period. The ASA ruled that the promotion, a direct mail pack including a letter which was addressed to individual consumers by name and a plastic card with their name on, broke the CAP Code, the rules governing advertising and marketing in the UK. The ASA said that Amazon should have made the fact that users would incur a cost if they failed to cancel much clearer, particularly given its prominent use of the word ‘free’ throughout the mailing. The regulator rejected Amazon’s defence that the charges were set out in the small print because, it said, there was no link between the use of the word ‘free’ in the main communication and the small print (for example, through the use of an asterisk or footnote symbol). The ASA also upheld complaints that the charges for Amazon Prime and Amazon Prime Video, of £79 a year and £5.99 a month respectively, were not clearly communicated. The regulator rejected Amazon’s argument that the costs were on the web page which consumers saw when they registered for the free trial online, saying that they should have been set out in the original letter. The ASA ruled that because of both of these failings, the mailing pack and the offer it contained were misleading. Amazon has been told not to use the approach again. The ASA’s ruling underlines that marketers must take care over use of the word ‘free’, says Hina Parmar, legal counsel at the Institute of Promotional Marketing, which offers expert advice on how to make sure promotions are legal and CAP Code-compliant. Parmar observes: "The ASA's decision to ban this campaign highlights the fact that marketers have to be careful when using the word “FREE” to entice customers to engage with their brand. They must make crystal clear anything which is likely to influence the customer’s understanding of the offer and whether they take it up. As a rule of thumb, any conditions, especially where money is payable, need to be highlighted, not hidden in the small print." Further advice on ‘free’ promotions is available from the IPM’s legal and compliance team; click HERE or go to www.theipm.org.uk
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