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Yours Free — My Gift to You!

February 15th, 2007 by Bob Bly

Alan Shawn Feinstein, one of the deans of mail order in the pre-Internet era, once ran a full-page ad in the New York Times with the headline:

“Yours Free — My Gift to You.”

But JW, a subscriber to my e-zine The Direct Response Letter, thinks “free gifts” is bad writing.

“Free gifts … is there any other kind?” he asks.

I replied:

“JW, your argument is that ‘free gift’ is redundant — like ‘armed gunmen.’

But, tests prove that in direct marketing, omitting the word ‘free’ and just saying ‘gift’ actually depresses response.

“I teach in business writing classes to avoid redundancy … but I am not sure that’s always good advice.

“The reason for redundancy is that some people need to read a thing several times before it sinks in….”

Where do you stand on this issue of good grammar vs. good selling?

Is “free gift” bad English … or just effective marketing?


This entry was posted on Thursday, February 15th, 2007 at 1:31 pm and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

41 responses about “Yours Free — My Gift to You!”

  1. Steve Slaunwhite said:

    Ever since the Trojan horse was used as a gift more than 3000 years ago, people have been suspicious of the word “Free”. That’s why marketers, in the war for our wallets, need to reassure us by adding the word “Free”. We wouldn’t trust them otherwise.

  2. Suzanne Ryan said:

    I’ve accepted that, grammarwise, anything goes in commercial writing. Not typos or bad comma placement. But definitely word usage and truncated sentences.

  3. SpongeBob Fan said:

    Just effective marketing.

    Free means free.

    (Gift without free to me usually means “gift with purchase.” Uusally a useless gift, at that!)

  4. David Morgan said:

    Yes. It is bad English AND effective marketing. I wouldn’t write it in a short story. But I would put it in a promo for sure.

  5. Michael A. Stelzner said:


    Free gift is not bad English, but “The rason for redundancy” is.

    It’s ok, it happens to all of us. 🙂


  6. Ali Manson said:

    The phrase itself is often misused, and has lost all.

    For example, a life insurance company offer you a FREE GIFT of an alarm clock, pen set or a DVD player as an incentive for buying one of their policies.

    Now, I for one DON’T think this is a FREE GIFT. You’re making a purchase from them and they are adding value to that purchase, but it’s certainly not free in my books.

    It’s redundant, and in certain cases, altogether misleading.

    These days, there’s no such thing as something for nothing. I’m thoroughly depressed now. I’m going for a lie down…


  7. Jodi Kaplan said:

    It’s bad English and, apparently, bad Spanish too. I have a client (a Spanish direct marketer) who is in a constant tug-of-war with her proofreader about this. He takes it out, she puts it back in. However, it’s also effective direct marketing in both languages, and given a choice between blindly following the rules and increasing response, both my client and I opt for the money!

  8. Richard Armstrong said:

    Alan Shawn Feinstein … now there’s a name I haven’t heard in a while. That brought me back. Didn’t our mutual friend Milt P. ghostwrite some books for him? As far as “Free Gift” goes, I’d say FREE, FREE, FREE GIFT if I thought it would bump up the response. We ain’t writing to english perfessers.

  9. Mordechai (Morty) Schiller said:

    Right on, Richard!
    We’re copywriters… not schoolmarms. Our job is to sell, not to educate.

  10. Manage Your Writing said:

    Redundancy all over again

    Bob Bly, this country’s leading authority on copywriting, reports that one of his readers has challenged the phrase Free Gift as redundant. Bly responds that tests prove that in direct marketing, omitting the word ‘free’ and just saying ‘gift’…

  11. nettie hartsock said:

    Bob –

    I’m a sucker for opening something that has “free gift” on the outside, even just to see what they’re offering. I don’t think it’s redundant in the case of selling copy. It’s persuasive!

  12. Les Leslie said:

    I find redundant phraseology very similar to fingernails on blackboards. However, for marketing purposes, I tend to put “free gift” into the “irritating but expedient” class. People perceive “gift” as having an invisible companion — “obligation.” “Free” not only does not seem to have this affliction, when used in concert, it seems to negate the invisible companion. (100% perception — no basis in fact or logic!)

  13. Apryl Parcher said:

    We are conditioned to look for the word FREE and pick it out of surrounding context (especially in caps) much like our brains are constantly looking for patterns that look like faces among the everyday images we see. If it looks like a face, we do a double-take to confirm. Putting the word GIFT after FREE, gives the reader the slightest of nudges toward the double-take column, and one more chance to hook them into reading further to see what the FREE GIFT might be. Not everyone sees the Virgin Mary in the cheese, so to speak, but enough that it can be measured. Use every trick in the book, I say, and don’t let your high-school english teacher proof the usage. She’s not the one with the money on the line.

  14. Bill Ryan said:

    Scotsman David Ogilvy back in an earlier century asserted that the two most powerfull words in the language were Free and New. Although, he observed, the word Free is difficult to use and is seldom used correctly. As in, for example, “Buy one and get one free.” It wouldn’t hurt, is my guess, to mention that all free gifts are new.

    Comment by Bill Ryan

  15. Frank Catalano said:

    The problem isn’t the word “Free.” It’s the word “Gift.” Why not replace the latter with what actually IS free? Or a different word than “Gift?”

    It would provide more clarity and, as Strunk and White note, being more specific and clear is far more memorable and motivating than being obtuse and opaque.

    Free Alarm Clock. Free Cool Thingie. Anything that doesn’t promote redundancy is possible.

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