FREE Versus Discount Advertising

As advertisers we create and distribute promotional offers to drive traffic to our website clients – so what message really drives action?  What is valued the most, a loyalty program, discounting, buy one get ones?  How about FREE?

Everyone likes a discount but FREE comes out ahead when strategizing long term impact.  FREE not only drives consumers to take action quicker but FREE is a gift that keeps on giving.

The Law of Reciprocity

I wrote about the Law of Reciprocity in the past.  It is human nature to want to give back when one receives something.  So although it would seem that a FREE Bag of Dog Food at PetSmart, Free Slurpee Day at 7-Eleven or a FREE $25 Gift Card at Floor and Décor would cause these retailers to lose profit, it actually has the opposite effect and increases sales.

I have been the recipient of all of the offers above and each and every time I have walked out buying an additional item (and I know the law of reciprocity).  I am so grateful to the retailer providing the free offer; I am intrinsically motivated to make an additional purchase (or I feel bad leaving without making a purchase).

Even if you’re not like me, feeling grateful enough to buy something, maybe you’re even guilted into it?  Ever try a sample at Costco and feel obligated to buy it afterwards?

According to a 2013 TIME Magazine article regarding 7-Eleven, my personal reaction of purchasing more after receiving something free is quite common. 7-Eleven’s Free Slurpee Day has resulted in ancillary sales increases of 40% or more in hot dogs, beef jerky and other snacks parable with an icee beverage.  It’s no wonder FREE Slurpee Day is an annual event.

Edan Gelt Communications Strategist
Edan Gelt Communications Strategist


Offering customers a discount does not relate as well as a FREE or bonus item, even if the value is the same.  In a study that was done, writers Haipeng (Allan) Chen, Howard Marmorstein, Michael Tsiros, & Akshay R. Rao, note that when people were offered 33% more of an item versus 33% off the regular price, people actually picked the extra product, even though the discount was a better deal.  They learned that people’s perception of FREE or bonus outweighed the reality of the discount.

 Something to talk about

Not only are free offers good sampling opportunities but they also make great stories for the media.  FREE offers also make huge splash on social media.  People tend to share freebies.  If a famous sandwich shop is offering a free 6” sub and puts the offer on a social platform, it will go viral – driving swarms of people to the location.  The promotion will also likely make the evening news.

By:  Edan Gelt, MBA, CMD

Interested in creating a strategic communications campaign to increase sales?

Reach out at

With more than 20 years of diverse communications experience, Edan Gelt has an extensive capability in diverse advertising mediums across various industries, offering insight on communications strategy, research, public relations, advertising, special events, social media, advertising, branding and more.

Edan Gelt holds a Bachelor of Science degree  from Elmhurst College and an Executive MBA degree .


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