Has “FREE” become cliche?

Is "free" cliche?I recently received an email from a young copywriter who informed me that the word “free” was now dead.

“It’s a cliche. No one uses this anymore and no one pays attention to headlines that say free. Who believes that anymore? You have to be more subtle now.”

Well golly, thanks for sharing your 6 months of experience. I’ll inform the entire marketing world that “free” should officially be dropped from the selling lexicon because … um … why did you say we can’t use “free” any longer?

Oh, it’s a cliche. Well, let’s think about that before we take any drastic action. What is a cliche?

Here’s how Dictionary.com defines the word cliche:

  1. a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse, as sadder but wiser, or strong as an ox.
  2. (in art, literature, drama, etc.) a trite or hackneyed plot, character development, use of color, musical expression, etc.
  3. anything that has become trite or commonplace through overuse.

So if the word “free” is a cliche, that means it’s a common idea, it has lost its originality, and it no longer has impact. Is that true?

Okay, “free” is a common idea. No argument there. You frequently see the word used in ads and everyone understands it instantly.

It has also lost its originality. Advertisers have used it for as long as I can remember. A quick search in the Online Etymology Dictionary suggests that it was first used in the 1580s to mean “free of cost.”

But has it lost its impact? That’s the crux of it. Who cares if a word is common or unoriginal? All that matters in marketing is “does it work?”

After all, there are quite a few things that are common and unoriginal that work. Announcing a “sale” nearly always boosts revenue, for example. Neither the business owner nor the customers care whether the concept is original.

I’d say that “free,” while common and unoriginal, still works. When I created a radio ad offering a “FREE Better Sex Kit” for one of my clients, it got people’s attention and generated phone calls. When The Teaching Company offered me a “free” audio course, I downloaded it. When my wife saw an in-store offer for “buy one get one free” in the makeup section of Macy’s, she immediately took advantage of it. (As if she needed any encouragement to buy something at Macy’s.)

In fact, I use “free” all the time. In direct mail. In online sales pages. In radio and emails and videos and, well, pretty much everywhere. And so do thousands of other businesses. Free offers don’t always work, but that’s not because the word “free” is defunct.

Some years ago, I wrote and designed a self-mailer with the word “free” in big, honkin’ 300 pt. type and got 700% more response than the control mailer which used more subtle language to talk about stuff at no cost.

So, with all due respect for the vast experience of the 22-year old copywriter with over a half year of experience, I beg to differ.

“FREE” is not a cliche. It’s common. It’s unoriginal. But it still has impact. You know why? Because the idea of getting something without cost is a basic human motivation. It does not go out of style any more than the promise of sex goes out of style. People have always wanted free stuff and they always will.

And what’s the simplest, clearest way to say that? FREE!

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12 Responses to “Has “FREE” become cliche?”

  1. Mike Venti on March 16th, 2010 12:52 pm

    I think you’re right Dean.

    While “Free” has definitely become stale and overused. It still has the power to connect with people when used correctly.

    If in the hands of thousands of unknown bands promoting a free download than, yes, “Free” is ignorable.

    But when Trent Reznor decides to release Free content, everyone jumps on the opportunity.

    Therefore, free things CAN be common and unoriginal, but can still have a large impact when used in the right markets.
    .-= Mike Venti’s last blog … Playing For Free: Insult Or Opportunity? =-.

  2. JohnFTM on March 16th, 2010 12:56 pm

    “FREE” (all-caps version) works, obviously; but it does have a tendency to make some people suspicious. “Free for personal use”, on the other hand…

  3. Theraisa K on March 16th, 2010 12:58 pm

    I agree, the word “Free” is still awesome regardless of how unoriginal or obvious it is – both as a consumer and as someone trying to sell a product/service. I’m instantly drawn to any article, headline, or ad that has the word “free” in it. I probably wouldn’t have noticed or otherwise taken an interest if that word wasn’t in the catch phrase/sales pitch. It just sounds better than “no cost” or even “Pro Bono” – Free is universal and can’t really be replaced by any other word, in my opinion at least! :)

  4. Dave Thomas on March 16th, 2010 2:32 pm

    It will also have differing impact on different target audiences, ages and social groups. Even the economic climate will vary the impact that “FREE” has.

    If by definition it is a cliche, who cares. Used correctly, it works. Always has and always will.

  5. Storytelling Social Media Marketing PR Technology & Business Curated Stories Mar. 16, 2010 on March 16th, 2010 3:50 pm

    [...] Has “FREE” become cliche? Published: March 16, 2010 Source: Direct Creative Blog I recently received an email from a young copywriter who informed me that the word “free” was now dead. “It’s a cliche. No one uses this anymore and no one pays attention to headlines that say free. Who… [...]

  6. Eric Carlson on March 18th, 2010 9:00 am

    Free certainly is common and unoriginal, but it still works. The word free gets over the first question most customers ask, “How much is this going to cost me?” That is why you see everyone say “Get FREE Newsletter” on their blogs. That is why you see DR ads with Free Trials. Not only are free items good as a standalone, but saying you will throw in something for free adds value to your product. In DRTV, it is truly amazing how a $3-$5 “free”" item can add a $10 or $20 perceived value to an item. Do you think its expensive to throw in pancake flipper sticks or another Shammy?

  7. TC/Copywriter Underground on March 19th, 2010 11:03 am

    I think “free” has it traps, but still has plenty of legs, especially if it’s modified to make it seem more credible.

    For example, many “free” offers aren’t free, yet it takes a little digging to make that clear. In those cases, I think the value of “free” – especially over the long term – might just be a negative.

    Modifying the “free” offer with credibility in mind renders it more credible (and more effective, both now and in the long run).

    Good post!
    .-= TC/Copywriter Underground’s last blog … Weekly Tweetfest =-.

  8. Jeff Brooks on March 25th, 2010 5:35 pm

    Amen brother! We can ignore these pipsqueak youngsters and their ignorant pronouncements about what “everybody” does and doesn’t do.

  9. Andrew Billmann on April 2nd, 2010 11:04 am

    There’s a HUGE difference between FREE (as in, I’m willfully and freely giving you something) and FREE* (it doesn’t cost anything, but there are a lot of strings attached.)

    FREE still works, but the cynicism surrounding it is entirely our fault.

    Admit it: As a writer, you’ve abused this word.

  10. Dean Rieck on April 2nd, 2010 11:21 am

    No, Andrew. I have not. I don’t recall ever using the word free when I didn’t mean free with no cost or obligation of any kind.

  11. Matt Ward on April 5th, 2010 3:30 pm

    First of all, to the bright young spark who emailed you, I’m not sure that a word can become cliche, at least not without context. Since it is neither a phrase nor an expression how could it possibly be any more overused than any other adjective, like “red” or “big” or “stupendous”?

    Second, I know that the term FREE still works on me, and I can be pretty cynical. But, every time I see the word FREE in a headline it immediately gets my attention. I can’t say I always act, but it’s still a great way to catch my attention.

  12. Dean Rieck on April 5th, 2010 5:08 pm

    Well, yeah. Free works on everyone. But there are a contingent of young, naive, or otherwise smarty pants people out there who think because they know the tricks, the tricks no longer work. Every generation produces people like this and after 10 years in the biz or so, they learn better.

    In fact, there are lots of studies showing how people think advertising works on other people … but not on them. Which makes you wonder about why thy think they bought their particular computer or would settle for nothing less than an iPod or prefer a certain beer, etc.

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