Let’s face it. People like free stuff. They’ll listen to you pitch your product if it means they get a t-shirt at the end, and putting a “free!” label on your ad should make your customers click through to get their prize at the bottom of the box.
But it turns out that “free” is more complicated than we give it credit for.
If you just look at a straight comparison, “free” doesn’t come off very well. It beats out “$0” and “gratis,” for certain, at a decent margin. But when you start to look at its other synonyms, “free” begins to fall short. “Complimentary” beats out “free,” appearing in over three times as many successful ads. And “no cost” then beats out everything by an even larger margin, with over four times as many successful compared to unsuccessful ads.
The raw breakdown, then, is:
- No cost
But why is this? Why would “complimentary” and “no cost” beat the ever-recognized “free”?
To test this, we need to look at expanding the keywords. A comparison of “free shipping” and “complimentary shipping” shows that complimentary still wins out. But “no cost shipping” doesn’t exist in successful ads at all. In fact, “no cost” is never paired with a noun. Rather, it expands into “at no cost” or “at no cost to” and so on. So while “no cost” is the best out of all when compared directly, it’s far less versatile than “free” or “complimentary.”
So then we have “complimentary” versus “free.” Both can be used in conjunction with nouns, like “complimentary breakfast” and “free consultation.” And in all of those pairings, complimentary is the overwhelming winner. The exception to the rule is “complimentary consultation,” where “free consultation” is three times more likely to be found in successful ads.
But the pairings for “complimentary” are limited. It seems if it’s not a breakfast, or shipping, or consulting, no one uses it. And that’s where the deceptiveness of “free” comes in; its versatility as a word means it is used in more ads, which in turn can create a deceptive downturn in data. So while “no cost” and “complimentary” may be better converting, they don’t and can’t apply to all of the situations that “free” can, making it still a viable choice for advertising, when anything else doesn’t sound quite right.
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