Most of us know all too well that freebies usually come with a catch. More often than not you must spend a certain amount before you can get the freebie, or you are required to sign up to some sort of subscription service first.
However, I was recently given a free sample whilst out shopping, seemingly without a catch. I was browsing in Boots, when a Clinique representative approached me asking if I was interested in a free gift, containing samples of three different products. Being aware of the usual extra spending or commitment involved in obtaining freebies such as these, I politely declined. She persisted, saying that I didn’t even need to buy anything.
Although it seemed a little too good to be true, I accepted the gift. The representative then asked me if I would be willing to return to the store a week or so later, to provide feedback on the free gifts. I provided my name and email address and confirmed that I would return exactly a week later.
In theory, I did not have to return to the store at all; she had already given me the free samples! And yet I found myself returning one week later as promised, providing feedback on the products I had used. I even found myself making a purchase whilst I was there! So how is it that I was under no obligation to buy anything and yet there I was making an unnecessary purchase that I would not have made if it wasn’t for the free samples?
It is possible that by giving the free samples, Clinique are advertising their products, which people simply enjoy using and so end up returning to buy the full-size versions. However, I also noted several persuasion techniques at play here, which are outlined by Cialdini (2009):
As I explained, I could have kept the samples and never returned; there would have been no repercussions for doing so. But the representative's act of giving me the samples made me feel obliged to give something in return, particularly as she had already given me the samples before asking if I would commit to giving feedback. I could hardly say no!
This effect has been demonstrated in a study by Regan (1971), in which participants bought twice as many raffle tickets from a confederate after they had just given them a free bottle of coke than if the confederate hadn’t given them anything. This was the case even though the free bottle of coke was unrequested by the recipient, just as I did not request the free gift from Clinique.
Although I did enjoy using the products, I did not initially intend on purchasing the full-size version due to the fact that Clinique is a particularly expensive brand. So how is it that I ended up doing exactly what I thought I wouldn’t?
Well, as explained in (1), I felt obliged to reciprocate the favour of giving me the free gift by returning to give feedback. I gave positive feedback as I genuinely liked the products I had used. The representative then asked me ‘As you enjoyed using the products so much, would you be interested in buying the full-size versions?’. Research has shown that people like to appear consistent. For example, the number of people intervening when witnessing a theft increased by 75% when first asked to watch the other person’s things, wanting to appear consistent with what they had agreed to (Moriarty, 1975). Consequently, as I had given positive feedback, it would be inconsistent for me not to want to continue using them. So, I bought them.
Providing a written commitment made me feel obliged to return one week later. Research has shown that providing a simple commitment increases your likelihood of doing something. For example, a survey asking people to predict whether they would vote in the presidential election led to an increased number of people who actually voted among those surveyed (Greenwald, Carnot, Beach & Young, 1987). Research has also shown that written commitments are more effective than private commitments. Deutsch and Gerard (1955) found that among those who estimated the lengths of lines, those who wrote their estimation down for others to see were less likely to change their mind than those who kept their estimates in mind, privately.
The Clinique representative asked me to fill out a form with my name, contact details and the time I would return to give feedback. It is therefore likely that providing this written form of commitment increased the chances of me returning than if she had simply asked me to confirm verbally.
Cialdini, R. B. (2009). Influence: Science and practice. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.
Deutsch, M., & Gerard, H. B. (1955). A study of normative and informational social influences upon individual judgment. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 51, 629-636.
Greenwald, A. G., Carnot, C. G., Beach, R., & Young, B. (1987). Increasing voting behaviour by asking people if they expect to vote. Journal of Applied Psychology, 72, 315-318.
Moriarty, T. (1975). Crime, commitment and the responsive bystander: Two field experiments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31, 370-376.
Regan, D. T. (1971). Effects of a favour and liking on compliance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 7, 627-639.