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Thinking outside the (subscription) box

From beauty to beer, flowers to fashion, grooming to geekery, pets to produce – there’s seemingly a subscription box catering to every possible interest or desire. But while subscription boxes may vary wildly in terms of both cost and frequency, your marketing of them should always be upfront about exactly what consumers are signing up for.

The Advertising Standards Authority have just released three key pieces of advice to help you deliver compliant subscription box marketing.

Be careful when offering a “Free trial”

In principle, there is nothing wrong with marketers offering consumers a “Free trial” of their subscription boxes. Problems arise however when consumers are unknowingly enrolled onto ongoing payment plans – often described as “subscription traps”.

The ASA has previously investigated and upheld complaints against an advertiser who failed to make explicitly clear the level of ongoing financial commitment required to take part in their “Free trial” promotion.

This situation can be avoided by ensuring your ads clearly state all significant conditions likely to influence a consumer’s decision to participate in any “Free trial” offer, in line with Code rule 8.17.

In particular, you should include information on:

· Whether a paid subscription starts automatically after the trial unless cancelled,

· How to cancel if the arrangements for doing so differ from what a consumer might reasonably expect,

· The extent of the financial commitment if the subscription is not cancelled during the trial, and

· Any other significant conditions: for example, geographical or other restrictions and end-dates.

Consider the prominence of material information and significant conditions

The ASA expects all of the material information an applicant needs to know in order to make an informed decision about whether to buy (or not) to be included in the ad. Clarity is key; simply stating “T&Cs apply” is usually unlikely to be considered sufficient to make any relevant conditions or important information about a subscription clear to consumers.

Indeed, material information and significant conditions must be displayed with such prominence that consumers will see them before choosing whether or not to sign up to a subscription or take up a promotional trial for one (for example, you shouldn’t hide such information away at the bottom of a long web page).

Although rule 8.18 allows for some information to be accessible elsewhere, only in extreme circumstances will a media type be considered to be “significantly restricted by time or space” (and this is likely to be limited to sponsored ads on search engine sites and extremely small banner ads). In the case of text messages, for example, the ASA has previously ruled that a significant condition should be included in the message.

Ultimately, if it is not possible to include all relevant significant conditions within an ad, marketers should consider whether the media type in question is suitable to promote such an offer.

Remember that the rest of the Code applies too

As with all ads, any objective claims about the contents of the box or what those products can do must be supported by evidence and not exaggerated. There are also specific restrictions on the claims that can be made in relation to particular products, such as alcohol, food and health and beauty products.

Make sure you’re familiar with any specific rules that relate to the products included in your boxes and that you can prove any claims you make.

Further reading

For more information on “subscription traps”, or for examples of how to make significant conditions clear in ads with “Free trial”-style subscription box offers, please see CAP’s detailed guidance note here. You can also contact our Copy Advice team for bespoke advice on your non-broadcast advertising.


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