Free. Guaranteed!

In copy, the words “free” and “guaranteed” are both powerful and weak… both easily understood and completely misunderstood… and both essential to successful advertising and a good way to murder your sales message.

The problem — and the solution — is in a small detail that most rookies miss.

That detail is… proof.

Both words have been so overused and misused that, all alone in a piece of copy, they are pretty much meaningless. Even the most gullible prospects today know that a simple declaration that something is “free” doesn’t mean it’s actually free of strings. It’s free when you buy this. Free when you’ve saved up enough coupons. Free as long as you meet these requirements.

Same with “guarantee”. I see this a LOT when I critique copy for rookies — the word gets tacked onto the end of the headline, followed by an exclamation mark. As if the pure power of the word is so staggering, they’re risking the wrath of God just writing it down like that.

But they seldom explain what the guarantee is. And so it is meaningless bragging… much like that uncle who gets drunk at family gatherings and starts yelling to make his point during an argument.

Yelling is not being bold and convincing. It’s just yelling.

Smart writers know their reader is skeptical of these words… and immediately (as in the next sentence) explain what they mean by “free” or “guranteed”. Or at least allude to that explanation — so the reader knows the details are forthcoming.

The concept of the guarantee is the easiest to screw up. You make a promise to your reader, and then say you guarantee it. But what does that mean? Many writers use the word to imply that they are so confident, they will use the most powerful word they know to punctuate their promise.

But if there’s no meat behind the guarantee — if the consequences of NOT fulfilling the promise are not spelled out — then the word becomes limp baggage in your pitch.

The concept of the guarantee is all about reversing the risk in the deal. Instead of the prospect shouldering the burden of how good your product is… YOU take on all the risk. And not just with bragging — with real money, or a real promise of something that helps convince the reader he actually doesn’t risk anything if he gives your product the old “look see”.

At the very least, you need to guarantee a prompt refund. Even better, explain how there are no hoops to jump through, either — no forms to fill out, no questions asked, no delay. Even better, sweeten the deal so that he gets to keep most or all of the stuff even if he decides he wants a refund.

That’s what a truly confident salesman does.

And give him a long time to think it over, without penalty. The basic 30-day money-back guarantee helps to make the prospect feel safe, but still seems like he’s being rushed a bit. Ninety days is better. Six months is even more calming. And a year… well, the risk just evaporates when you know you have a full year to examine something before deciding if you want to keep it.

I even throw in a line, sometimes, about being able to return the product “in any condition”… so the prospect can actually use it during his guarantee period without worrying about having his refund denied. Sometimes I even insist that he return it beaten up and bruised.

That’s what shows real confidence. (“Why do I insist you use it as if you own it? Because I know that, once you see it in action, you won’t part with it for any amount of money…”)

Take away ALL the risk. Every scrap.

What’s more… in my experience, having a few “strings” attached to just how free anything is… is acceptable to most readers, as long as the conditions are thoroughly and honestly explained. Sure, you need to buy something first… but since you have a long guaranteed refund period on that purchased item, and you can keep the free stuff even if you return everything else to get your money back… well, “free” fits.

It’s all about explaining things honestly, and making your explanation make sense to the reader.

The old saying “he could sell ice to Eskimos” has a deeper meaning — which is: Objections are not a deal-killer to a good salesman. (How hard do you have to consider before buying some clean, fresh-water ice for your evening cocktails, when it’s made clear that all the snow around you is dirty and mixed with sea water? For example.)

If what you offer fits your prospect’s needs or desires… then all that stands between you and a sale is the way you present the deal. You’re selling apples, I’m hungry and I want an apple… but I’m not sure I want YOUR apple. It’s your job to make it seem like a no-brainer to try one of yours.

If I don’t like it after the first bite, I get my money back. And I get to keep the apple anyway.

And you’ll even throw in a free second apple… because that’s the kind of guy you are.

Pleasure doing business with you.

Stay frosty.

John Carlton

P.S. By the way… I realize the archives of this blog aren’t yet attached. They soon will be… and it’s a lot of good material. Going all the way back to the start, around a year ago. The tech person I’m working with is busy changing the host for this blog… and once that’s done, the archives will go up, too.

P.P.S. Thanks to everyone who sent me an email, glad I wasn’t abducted by aliens or drowned in a freak accident. Next time, though, post your comment here, on the blog. New readers like to see what you think.

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"11 Really Stupid Blunders You're Making With Your Biz & Career Right Now."

  • Hi John:
    A quick intro – we ‘met’ at G. Halbert’s December 2002 Copywriting Seminar in Phoenix, Arizona.

    Something’s been troubling me inner noggin for a while now, and your recent FREE, GUARANTEE ‘apple example’ blog post, bought it all back to me.

    I’m a believer in the ‘better-than-risk-free guarantee, like the one you told about the apple – “if you don’t like the first bite, you’ll get your money back, and, you get to keep the apple. And… You’ll even get a second FREE apple, also!”

    I buy it.


    The inner noggin system threw me another point of view when doing some copy recently for a guy selling an info product – a 3-set cd. My inner yap system went something like this:

    If the first bite ain’t good, why load up the poor prospect with the idea of keeping hold of the darn thing! But, even further… why give him another of the same, just to rot his appetite and multiply his misery? And that to… FOR FREE!

    I told the guy with the info product about testing the idea about NOT giving the stuff for free, even though the prospect had fiddled, fondled, and said… YUCK! Why put the blighter through all the misery?

    Why not instead, offer a SPECIAL REPORT as a thank you for trying us out, taking a chance, etc? Something that they HAVEN’T already chucked back in our face!

    The guy hummed and hawwed, but opted for giving the farm away. Sigh.

    Now, It may be easier to duplicate the cd’s and just give them away to someone who raised their armpits, but just says… NOOOOOOOO!

    Though, the idea of letting someone keep something, even though they’ve declared they don’t want it, is somewhat messing with my head.

    I know it may be a pschological ploy to win the prospect’s mind with heaving everything at them, but have you tested out the idea of NOT letting them keep everything, but somehow still making it a better-than-risk-free?

    Curious about your thots.

    Warm regards John,


    P.S It’s such a great blog, that at times, it overshadows your paid subscription newsletter! Sheesh… do I need to cancel!!?’$% 🙂

  • John,

    It’s a relief you weren’t abducted because every month when I get your Rant I stop what I’m doing, tell the folks around me to buzz off and do something else besides bug me for a while and devour it.

    In fact, I’ve been so thoroughly enjoying your stuff (along with the big fat course I bought) and using it to great effect, that I’m feeling like all I have to say is praise and compliments…

    And then suddenly I felt edgy… like I had to say SOMETHING critical just to make sure I wasn’t losing my mind. After all, nobody’s perfect.

    I was even going to write a parody about a fricken ‘headless golfer’ who improved his damn score.

    And then I realized what it was… something to nit pick about… you don’t drink scotch anymore (at least I think that’s what you told me at the Fusion seminar).

    In the grand scheme of things, it’s not much, but it’s something.

    There. I said it. Now I’m going to get back to a piece in your swipe file that is just perfect for the project I’m working on. Fricken genius stuff.

    Hope to see you in March.

    Craig Perrine

  • Jay says:

    Great read, John–very well done. And dead-on accurate.

    BTW, it was an honor meeting you last weekend in San Francisco. Thanks for your time!

  • Better Than Risk Free…

    I get it, and just like the comment above, the idea of giving someone more of the same when they’ve clearly said no thanks is kind of wonky.

    E.g. You’re at a restaurant. You order a meal. It sucks, the food tastes bad and you ask for a refund. The manager on duty smiles, apologises, refunds your money…and then gives you more of the same food!!! Yuk.

    To me this is a definite Homer Simpson moment – DOH!

    Now, *IF* we are to assume that the person requesting the refund is full of *it and is simply ‘trying it on’ to see if you are really going to honour your promise, then giving them a ‘free ride’ might appeal to them. But I ask you, is that the kind of client we all want? I know… it’s better to keep them happy because we don’t want bad news floating around.

    But I would (and have) recommended an alternate ‘gift’ for their efforts. Case in point… One of my clients is in the automotive service field, when a refund is requested for any reason I have encouraged my client to offer a ‘better than risk-free’ gift that has NOTHING to do with their primary business. In their case it’s a coupon for videos and pizza… A small but useful “thankyou”. Afterall, if that client thinks your service sucks… what good is more of the same service?

    Anyway, that’s my 2-cents worth.

    – James Burchill

  • […] A couple months ago, John Carlton posted on his blog an entry entitled “Free. Guaranteed!” When you’re giving away something, or when you’re making a guarantee, don’t just use the words “free” and “guaranteed.” Using these words does not by itself conjure a magic incantation that will make people buy. These words have been so overused, in fact, that customers are rightly skeptical whenever they see them in an ad headline. […]

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