America’s Favorite Four-Letter Word

What’s a four-letter word that is music to the ears of the hearer, and brings happiness to the heart of the reader? Clue: the number one definition on is, “Not imprisoned or enslaved,” while the more appropriate number seven meaning is, “Costing nothing, [or] gratuitous.” A crossword buff probably guessed by now, it’s the word, “free.”

Our society loves this term that conjures up the thought of getting something for nothing. In confirmation, when one googles this famous four-letter word, instantly you are confronted with more than 3,290,000,000 references. That’s billions, not millions of related searches including: “free products, free games, totally free stuff, free samples, free translations….” etc. Marketers know what suckers we all are for advertising that professes to give something away.

I learned a lot about this type of marketing years ago, when I was employed as a corporate representative for a large manufacturer that supplied products to supermarkets. Occasionally, on a Friday afternoon when the grocery store was packed, I would stand in a product aisle offering shoppers a generous coupon to buy a comparable item to the one they normally purchased. It was amazing how often brand loyalty could be bought for a couple of bucks. In fairness, there were also those die-hard loyalists who refused to switch no matter how large the coupon.

A column devoted solely to consumer coupon behavior would take on a life of its own, but let’s get back to marketing strategies touting free products. Because even better than a coupon savings of a few dollars, is getting an item absolutely free. Whether, it’s a free gift with purchase, a buy one get one free, a free trial, or free information; buyers often forget that the seller almost always has an ulterior motive.

Most of our parents warned us that there are no free lunches in life. Apparently, not everyone knows this, because an individual named Fidora emailed Yahoo! Answers at asking, “What is the meaning of this quote, ‘There is no free lunch?’” The consensus of the 10 answers offered was that somewhere down the line there is a cost for everything.

Therein lies the problem. If you don’t think you are paying for something you aren’t too concerned about whether it’s a good deal, or not. To implement the age-old philosophy of Caveat Emptor which is a Latin term for, “Let the buyer beware,” you have to possess a purchaser’s mentality. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language explains that Caveat Emptor is, “The axiom or principle in commerce that the buyer alone is responsible for assessing the quality of a purchase before buying.”

After all, like most astute consumers when spending your hard earned cash on an item you want the biggest bang for your buck. But if it’s free, you aren’t worried about a product’s quality. There are naïve buyers born every minute who are enticed by this type of “bait and switch” advertising. Take me, for example. I didn’t think I could lose when I eagerly requested the “free” designer scarf, which accompanied a magazine subscription that I didn’t really need. I could hardly believe my good fortune, until the scarf arrived in the mail about a week ago. It was paper thin and barely fit around my neck. My husband laughed out loud when I showed it to him.

This is just one account of my getting free stuff, which has robbed my budget in the long run. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have purchased the magazine had there not been a free gift incentive. In my defense, I’m not alone in this behavior, or the word, “free” wouldn’t be everywhere. Yet there are free products that can be helpful. Like a buy one get one free dinner to a restaurant you’ve always wanted to try, or frequently visit. Even then, watch that you don’t spend more on a higher-priced meal, beverages, or desserts than you normally would, while celebrating your free meal.

In closing, I hope it’s ok to share the wisdom that I’ve learned along life’s path.  Remember the old saying, “If something seems too good to be true, then it probably is.” Most free offers are in the too good to be true category. Now, you can take that free advice all the way to the bank.

This blog post originally appeared in The Lima News, and in the Troy Daily News.