Ramsey Naja is chief creative officer at JWT MEA
“It is said that, in advertising, there is no more powerful word than ‘free’. Well, I am no longer so sure about that. ‘Free’ is one of those words that have been so worn it should never be written in a serif font. Indeed, being a parent of that other knackered favourite ‘save’, it is a cornerstone of our industry’s penchant for offers you can’t refuse but that you should.
Free’s current troubles are a result of its close partnership with the asterisk and the small print, not to mention statements such as ‘conditions apply’, ‘subject to status’ and the menacing ‘while stocks last’. If anything, this association is proof of the old saying which suggests there is no such thing as a free lunch. People have grown used to the fact that free is nothing more than a bait on a hook and that, unless the offer is a blatant ‘buy one get one free’, they tend to resent the feeling of being treated like future sushi.
But beyond consumer cynicism and the declining credibility of anything that claims an absence of vested interest, it is online that free has met its biggest challenge. For many years, content has been freely accessible, whether its creators intended it or not. Indeed, this is one of the main drivers behind the post-digital push for offline content in the form of concerts and other venue-based entertainment. What this has meant for brands is that their role has frequently become that of facilitator, either in the shape of sponsorship or, less successfully, in permission-based marketing – a method strangely reminiscent of free-to-air TV.
There is, however, a New Free. It is the kind of content that stems from brands’ need to be owners of intellectual property that reflects their brand idea. The New Free is devoid of blatant commercialisation, interruption and the kind of product placement that makes a James Bond movie look like an upmarket duty free brochure. It happens when marketers and their agencies become producers of content whose commercial message is simply the ideology their brand stands for, and which consumers will either happily pay for – or simply download from a pirate site.”