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"Free trial" periods under the spotlight

Tim Rickard

Marketers should be aware that the Committee of Advertising Practice ("CAP") has recently published guidance about advertising "free trial" or other promotional subscriptions in the UK.

A free trial model is one where a consumer opts to try out a product or service free of charge for a defined period of time before subsequently becoming liable for the subscription unless the subscription is cancelled (often within the "free" trial period).

Such models are not necessarily harmful and in fact are often employed by traders to showcase their confidence that their product will satisfy the consumer. Problems arise however when a consumer unknowingly agrees to an ongoing payment plan or a "subscription trap" as it has been called.  It is here that customer protection priority at both national and EU Level has focused recently and the guidance published by CAP is designed to ensure that advertisers are compelled to make clear the extent of the commitment required to take advantage of a free trial. 

The CAP guidance states that there are two main ways for marketers to ensure that their free trial advertisements are not misleading:

1. Ensure that any significant conditions are made clear that are likely to affect a consumer's decision whether to participate in the free trial.

Simply stating that "T&Cs" apply is not sufficient. The significant conditions must actually be stated in the ad itself.  This includes making clear if a paid subscription will start automatically after the free trial unless it is cancelled as well as the extent of the financial commitment if it is not cancelled. 

2. Display the significant conditions in a sufficiently prominent place so that consumers will not miss them.

This means ensuring that they immediately follow the most prominent references to the trial or offer. Pop ups or text that is hidden away at the footer of a website will not be sufficient.  Where space is really tight, such as on a Twitter ad, marketers could include an image that contains the relevant conditions.  The message is clear – a lack of space is no excuse.  

The full guidance is available on the CAP website.