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Free: The dismal deal

Chris Hoofnagle, adjunct professor of information | April 26, 2010

The Journal recently reported that popular social networking site Ning is ending their free account services. Rumors are circulating that major newspapers, including the New York Times, are going to erect a pay-wall. These developments have not deterred the “free” evangelists.

For instance, in Chris Anderson’s provocative new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, he argues that in the digital world, “free” pricing is a realistic and normatively good approach to pricing information products. Unlike the physical world of “free” products, which is plagued with fraud and tricks, the properties of the digital world make free actually possible when bits are sold. The physical world is limited, but the digital world is abundant. Businesses can leverage this abundance, and give it away while making money by charging for whatever is still scarce. For instance, software can be given away free while support can be charged for. Stripped down products can be provided free, while expert users will pay for fully-featured products that subsidizes the free.

Anderson begins his book by describing two types of reactions to his thesis. The young say, “no duh.” They’ve grown up with Gmail and other free services. Older people react differently, finding free to be a harbinger of fraud. These olds are individuals who have grown up with free in the physical world; they’ve been burned by “free” offers.

It's a Trap!

It's a trap! By The Frankfurt School

I think “free” is a trap. I’ve expressed doubt about Anderson’s thesis, and even made the bold claim that Malcolm Gladwell’s critique had the better argument about free.

Anderson is convincing in arguing that some business models really do work with free as a price. However, the argument that the digital world is fundamentally different fails for reasons that Anderson does not address. Free in the digital world exhibits the same predations it does in the physical world.

Free and the Law

My initial skepticism comes from the legal issues surrounding free offers, something that Anderson does not address. The FTC’s guidelines on the use of the word free allows marketers to use the term to describe products that are not free, so long as the terms are adequately disclosed. Thus, those who approach these issues from a consumer protection paradigm are right to be guarded. Free in the physical world (as Anderson recognizes) is often just a scam. In the digital world, things are different, Anderson claims.

But the problem is that they really are not. Anderson invokes many anecdotes of seemingly free and good digital deals, but I can do the same, with seemingly free but bad deals. Exhibit 1: the FTC was recently ordered by Congress to reevaluate the marketing of so called “free” credit reports. Millions of consumers have been hoodwinked into expensive subscription scams in order to obtain a “free” digital copy of their credit report.

The Psychology of Free

The psychology of free is also worth visiting. David Friedman’s recent article, Free Offers: A New Look, explores these forces in detail. Friedman argues:

Over time, merchants, service providers, marketers, and advertisers have discovered a psychological glitch that works to their advantage. Use of the word “free” and the illusion of “gifting” in a commercial context can impact consumer behavior in ways not readily apparent.

One example of this…is the way in which the brain calculates the value of bundles. When a consumer is presented with an unbundled “gain”–that is, a split package of goods–the consumer will value the goods more than if they were bundled. Another way free offers impact and distort behavior is through creation of an atmosphere where the powerful noncommercial obligation of reciprocity is required.

“Free” makes people take different decisions. Ones that lead, in my opinion, to suboptimal outcomes:

Corner Cutting

First, offerors of free products, since the product is free, are free to cut corners. Consumers do not expect high quality when things are free. Often, these are hidden corners that only become apparent when things go wrong.

Anderson invokes Ryanair as an example of a company that has adopted a free business model. But this example makes my point: this is the company whose executive told the Journal in 2004 that, “It’s all about re-educating the passenger to accept a lower level of services…” In other respects, Ryanair and other “discount” carriers cut corners–most notably, by landing at airports are in the middle of nowhere. You save money on the ticket, but experience costs elsewhere that are difficult to measure and are often overlooked by consumers until one gets the $90 taxi bill.

“…people will pay if you make them, once they’re hooked.” – Chris Anderson

Second, free products are almost always a gimmick to promote lock-in. In the physical world, Anderson discusses the Gillette razor. As Maryland residents, my brothers and I all received a nice Gillette razor on our 18th birthdays. Once we went to the store to get replacement razors, it became clear how we paid for that free razor. Those razors are so expensive, and the value proposition is so poor that individuals regularly steal them!

Anderson uses this and many other examples as normative arguments in favor of free business models. These models are good for self-interested business, but bad for competition. Writing in Wired, Anderson expounds:

Give away the cell phone, sell the monthly plan; make the videogame console cheap and sell expensive games; install fancy coffeemakers in offices at no charge so you can sell managers expensive coffee sachets.

Why is it good to fool the consumer into a relationship where the value of the free offer is extracted through hidden fees and add-ons? Take wireless phones. Ringtones can play natively on unlocked phones. But when you get a “free” phone, that functionality is often locked, thus causing you to have to pay for tones (the carrier gets a 50% revenue share). That phone is free, but marketed such that total cost of ownership is increased and obscured. We’d be better off if these products were presented in a total cost of ownership framework rather than “free.”

These are the same practices that the financial services industry engages in. You get a card with “no annual fees” but the FIs have mastered ways to pack in costs “at the back of the product.” You optimistically believe that you’ll never be subject to those fees. But this very moment, there are teams of people just as smart as you whose enormous bonuses are keyed to their ability to make you believe that.

Anderson seems to argue that lock-in is good, and that consumers have to exercise common sense. The problem is, as Friedman has elucidated, common sense goes out the window when “free” is invoked.

The Free Mediocracy

Third, the combination of corner cutting and lock-in promotes mediocrity. Companies cannot compete with free, and this is one of the many reasons why bad products remain on the market despite the presence of better ones. People who value quality will have a harder time finding it, and in some cases, it will simply disappear.

Still Wearing Uggs? Free is for You!

This leads to my audacious prediction: eventually, tastemakers will see these trends in free offers, and much like big-box stores and other signals of massification, “free” will become uncool. There will be a backlash against free. Because free is cheap and consumers will want to distinguish themselves from the big-shorts-wearing mouthbreathers, paid services will gain reputational value.


Anderson’s is an optimistic book that does not fully address the reality of what free offers have been. Experts in consumer protection have long been skeptical of free offers as both potential scams, but also impediments to competition. Anderson addresses these counterarguments breezily.

Privacy issues are dealt with glibly too, and some important ones are missed entirely. For instance, I’d pose these questions to Gmail users: what is the cost to civil liberties from Gmail? How can one reasonably expect their email to be private from law enforcement in a world where users allow companies to scan content for advertising?

More problematic are Anderson’s examples. He lauds the New York Times for removing its paywall, but this is the same paper that is facing layoffs by the end of the year, while the Journal is increasing its subscribership with a paywall in place.

From a public policy perspective, Anderson’s book highlights why the FTC should revisit its free guidelines. Businesses are knowingly trading upon the psychological biases that free produces. The book also points to the need for total-cost-of-ownership advertising. In my consumer heaven world, most advertising could be comparative, like this. “Free offers,” in a world of such advertising, would soon be shown to be what they really are.

Originally posted on Denialism Blog

Free is available at no cost to you in audiobook format at Audible, and at Amazon for about $20.

Comments to “Free: The dismal deal

  1. We are also bombarded with FREE in our emails from these so called “Guru” experts and this is to just sign up for their daily newsletter to sell you more goods. So by giving you something for free you are expected to have to deal with daily emails from them to sell products. What i personally do is sign up for their deal if i like what is on offer and then when its delivered to my inbox i then unsubscribe from their newsletter. It works try it. You will then not have to deal with the daily onslaught from them in your inbox.

  2. Nice article! I know a major way that companies make money from giving away free products is to get the consumer to buy an upsell. Once they have the free product, they might want to add the additional pieces to it, or in the digital world a free product will have affiliate links in it that sell products to generate income for the company with the “free” offer.


  3. It is sad that now a days there are way too many scams associated with the word “free”. So many scammers take advantage of people who are looking for ways to help themselves because the economy is poor then those people end up loosing hundreds or maybe even thousands of dollars. Its unfortunate that because of this fewer companies want to offer free things. Great article, thanks for the useful information.

  4. Great report here, we have all seen the free everything on the internet. Most people know that in life nothing is really free. My website is no different. What am I trying to do is the same as everyone else. Get you to opt in to my list so I can sign you up as a client. For opting in I offer a “free report”. I also do everything white hat. The report is a good one and will show who ever opts in how to properly optimize their Google Places page. Lets face it, the motive is to get the business owner on my list. I feel like it’s worth it because the report is full of good information and if I don’t sign you up you still learn from the experience. So the question is, was it really free.

  5. We are also bombarded with FREE in our emails from these so called “Guru” experts and this is to just sign up for their daily newsletter to sell you more goods. So by giving you something for free you are expected to have to deal with daily emails from them to sell products. What i personally do is sign up for their deal if i like what is on offer and then when its delivered to my inbox i then unsubscribe from their newsletter. It works try it. You will then not have to deal with the daily onslaught from them in your inbox.

  6. In my opinion the software should be free, if it is created on the state money because the money of honest taxpayers. There is another option, such as in computer games, you can download game, play it, and if you like it, buy it.
    Well, for a single developer to be fed or famous rhetorical question)))

  7. This article mostly talks about “free” from the perspective of the consumer, but it also poses a dilemma for the marketer. I give away a free report on getting found by the search engines. I’ve been told I should charge for it as it has a lot of valuable information, but for now it is free. The question is did I “cheapen” the value of my information by not charging for it? Since it is free does that lessen the value of what I have to offer in my site visitors eyes? But on the other hand, how can I get noticed if I don’t do what everyone else is doing (giving away information for free in exchange for an email address)?

  8. The idea of “free” is associated with scams now a days due to the large amount of black hat activity in the internet marketing world. Blogs have evolved into auto-blogs.

    Fortunately white hat blogs with free content still exist. I give away free on my web blog and get lots of white hat traffic.

  9. “Free” has been abused way too much over the years. Too many scammers try to say that an item is free and then load you up with all kinds of expensive things that cost more than if you purchased the product itself. or even something better. Free items are out there, you just have to look very hard.

    This is a very good article. Keep them coming!

  10. “Free” doesn’t necessarily means “fraud”, or “cheap content”.

    It is true many scammers take advantage of the “free” catch, but there is a lot of Free content with GREAT quality (ask Seth Godin).

    I will get a “free” copy of Anderson’s book……. just kidding 🙂


    Alex Wilde.

  11. I think “free” offers/products on the internet are a major influence on copyright infringements and illegal downloads of software/movies/music. The idea of “get it for free on the net” has been ingrained into peoples consciousness.

    • Free books don’t allways have to be copy from others, you can have many great books in online education.
      Due to the upgrades in computer technology and the simple access to the web, online courses have continued to grow in popularity and are now the most well loved out of all of the distance education formats. According to a report issued by the Sloan Foundation, online programs continue to grow at a rate of 10 to 15 percent each year. With online programs, students have a digital classroom they can access 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They will typically have discussion board postings, readings, and assignments that must be done by a particular day of the week.

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