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Free advertising on notice

EVEN after years of use and misuse, one of the most popular marketing phrases is “free”. Optus will have to provide thousands of its customers with an extra year of unlimited free local calls after being found guilty of deceptive advertising last week.

In March Optus had promised “hundreds or thousands” of free local calls a month, then two months later restricted the number of free calls to 500 a month.

Optus had also required customers to sign a 12-month exclusive contract for long-distance and international calls, but the free local calls were to end on October 31 this year.

Thousands of affected customers will now be notified by Optus that the offer of unlimited free local calls will continue until October 31 next year.

This is a timely reminder for all businesses that they must be extremely cautious in placing limitations on what consumers would ordinarily see as unrestricted product offerings.

Also, if businesses try to limit expressions such as “free”, then these limitations must be clearly stated at the time the offer is made.

Whether something misleads an audience depends on the overall impression created, and the relationship between this and the actual facts of the matter.

The consumer is not required to exhaustively search for those facts. Instead, the advertiser must clearly direct the consumer’s attention to the most significant terms and conditions, the ones that will have an important impact on their decision to buy.

The ACCC is responsible for, and committed to, protecting consumer rights. If you would like more information about your rights and responsibilities regarding advertising, contact the ACCC or visit our website (www.accc.gov.au).

l Professor Allan Fels is chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

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