The Biggest Word in Marketing: FREE

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About halfway through the line
for the free event

Recently I was watching a program about household finances in America.  Not surprisingly, most of it focused on credit cards.  But there was a section where they interviewed the man who created Free Checking Accounts.  He gave this kernel of wisdom:  “The biggest word in marketing is free.”

How true this is.  Previous to the free checking account, banks would not allow you to overdraw your account.  If you wrote a bad check, you would receive a fee from the vendor, a fee from their financial institution, and most likely a fee from your own institution.  You had to keep a minimum balance in the account or face paying maintenance fees.  Sometimes you had to pay them regardless.  Then there was a fee for opening the account.  With the advent of free checking accounts, you did not have to pay opening fees or maintenance fees.  You could overdraw your account without receiving all those vendor fees.  BUT, you had to pay the bank back the balance you owed plus overdraw fees.  If you don’t know your account is empty and make multiple purchases, those overdraft fees can cost a ton.

I tend to see the merits in free checking accounts rather condemn them.  Overall, I think the new system is better.  There are, however, many malicious marketing campaigns advertising FREE stuff.  Think free credit report dot com.  You do receive a free credit report, but you have to pay to enroll in their program in order to get it.  (To find a place where you really can get a free credit report, check out this post.)  Downloading free music may give you music files you don’t have to pay for, but odds are you will end up paying for it with the health of your computer as viruses and trojans attack.  Another marketing ploy that irks me is when companies offer you free items online on the condition that you pay the shipping costs, which are usually inflated (whether you’re getting free stuff or not.)  Yes, technically the item is free, but I feel more like it’s a discount.

The whole place was this packed.  No joke.

I feel like the same thought process can be applied to free events, like the one I attended this weekend.  The idea of  it was that you came and got free baked goods from all these amazing bakeries around Pittsburgh and enjoyed live music and free beer.  You were asked to donate something to Children’s Hospital, but there was no mandate.  It sounded great.  And to some extent, it was.

There was an atrociously long line to get in.  But it was incredibly fast moving.  We arrived about an hour into the three-hour event, only to be told by the greeter that there was no food left.  There were hoards of people crowding around the last few tables that were slicing up their remaining crumbs to distribute.  Somehow we ended up in the beer line, and thank goodness we did.  They ran out of that, too, about three minutes later.

Free stuff

Some of the bakeries had had the presence of mind to order more food from their home bases when they saw it disappearing so quickly.  So about half an hour into our patronage, goodies abounded.  Not for long. Despite being told, “Please only take one, there are so many people,” greedy hands filled up their plates with the delectable goodies so quickly that the people at the end of the line didn’t stand a chance.  I noticed mostly anorexic-looking girls my age doing this.  And then sitting there nibbling at one of the cupcakes while they talked to their friends over their pile of beer.  I don’t think they even ate half of the things they picked up.  They just hoarded them.

I’m not complaining.  We got a couple goodies.  And made a good time for ourselves.  But I’ve felt like this at other free events, as well.  This one was particularly badly planned for, but these events are almost always overcrowded and full of selfish or rude people.

I’m going to keep telling you about free events.  Not all of them are like this one.  I try to test events out before I tell you about them.  I’ll keep telling you about free stuff.  And rest assured that there will be no hidden fees or scams behind them.  But always remember to keep a wary eye out when someone is offering you something for “free.”

What have your experiences at free events been like?

4 thoughts on “The Biggest Word in Marketing: FREE

  1. jlcollinsnh

    Great post, especially the point about Free, plus shipping and handling.

    Free is rarely free. just ask the mice who’ve accepted our “free cheese just step here” offers.

    on a regular basis I get offers to free lunches and dinners to hear about retirement investment strategies. (it’s a geezer thing, your day will come)

    used to be free dinner and a presentation on the wonders of time shares.

    sometimes, “free” is the most expensive choice you’ll ever make. ask the mice.

  2. femmefrugality

    @jlcollinsnh–That is too funny about the mice! I’ve gotten invited to those time share things, too. Mostly when I lived in the south. I really wish they weren’t so scammy because I’d really like a free trip to the beach right about now.
    @Elle—You’re right. I got the impression that the marketing team that ran it and set it up were extreme novices.


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