Note: This advice is given by the CAP Executive about non-broadcast advertising. It does not constitute legal advice. It does not bind CAP, CAP advisory panels or the Advertising Standards Authority.

The Copy Advice team is often asked what promoters can charge for when describing a promotional good as “free”. In short, to legitimately describe a product as “free”, promoters may charge only for the minimum, unavoidable cost of responding to the promotion, the true cost of freight or delivery or the cost of any travel involved if consumers collect the offer (Rule 3.23). In other words, promoters can charge for the actual, uninflated cost of postage.

The ASA upheld a complaint against an ad which described an offer as free but could not show that the standard delivery charge of £3.95 was no more than the true cost of freight or delivery. It reminded the advertiser that an offer should be described as free only if consumers paid no more than the true cost of freight or delivery, such as the public rate of postage (Direct Home Shopping Brands Ltd, 28 January 2009).

If they want to describe an offer as “free”, promoters must not charge the consumer for any packing, packaging, handling or administration in relation to the “free” item. This applies to direct or indirect forms of payment, so the ASA is likely to take a dim view of consumers being required to provide the packaging (eg. send the promoter a Jiffy bag or envelope).

The ASA ruled against and ad which quoted an amount as “postage” which included packing (Woods Supplements t/a Health Express, 27 June 2007). A website which claimed that a DVD was "free" to try and that customers would be sent a “free” copy was held to be misleading because a handling fee was payable (PUA Training Ltd 4 September 2013.

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