Be wary of hidden cost of freebies

Black Friday sale sign
A Black Friday sale sign at Urban Outfitters in the Mall of America on November 24, 2017. PHOTO | AFP 

Around the corner, up the street, snaking in S patterns all over to the cashier, customers waiting patiently for upwards of an hour just for a drink. When a Nairobi coffee house held its anniversary special last week with Sh20 cups of coffee, the public response proved overwhelming.

Thousands of Kenyans across the nation queued up for the affordable promotion.

Back in 2009, American restaurant chain Denny's held a one-day promotion in the midst of the economic recession to provide "every person in America with a grand slam meal". People waited for hours in lines outside the restaurants that went all the way down city blocks. Despite the loss of money from the promotion, Denny's cemented itself as standing in unison with the country and becoming a quintessential American food brand in the nation's conscious even for those who did not get the free food.

The myriad of television, newspaper, and radio advertisements made sure everyone knew of the chain's giveaway. Also in America, every year in November the day after their holiday “Thanksgiving” millions of Americans line up overnight, camp out in tents in store parking lots, and rush to enter stores before daybreak because of the large deeply discounted and heavily advertised sales that occur on " Black Friday" by thousands of merchants. Stores will advertise large screen televisions for only $20 as examples, or laptops for as low as $100 but only make a few available. So shoppers rush and push each other to get the few deep discounted deals.

But why were these two promotion specials so fantastically successful? Ever wonder why free food tastes better or great deals on clothes shopping make us happier to wear the item?


Humans are hard wired to crave free things. We relish the concept of receiving something for nothing. Then, we still retain satisfaction every time we remember, someone mentions, or we see something that reminds us of the free or extremely cheap giveaway. We bond with the object or service provider.

Psychologist Eva Krockow likens it to receiving an unexpected reward in a harsh world where we feel like we overpay for seemingly everything else. So marketers, packaging products as "two for the price of one" or "buy one get one free" promotions often obtain almost similar effects to true giveaways.

However, there exists a downside to free giveaways. Rarely is something truly free. In the coffee house and Denny's examples above, one had to spend copious amounts of time standing and waiting in line in order to benefit from the free food.

Time wastage comes with a real cost of inconvenience or loss of alternate wages. If obtaining free content online, maybe we have to allow the social media company to sell our private data, or watch commercials on YouTube, or sign up to receive a bombardment of unwanted email advertising.

Unfortunately, our brain fixates on the free aspect and often overlooks unseen hidden costs used in order to get the free item. We might even queue for an item we do not really like just because it is free.

Several students at USIU-A last week said while standing in line for the affordable coffee that they did not even really like the beverage, but because of the cheap deal promotion for Sh20, they thought it worth it.

They paid the hidden cost with their time waiting without the upside of a type product they thoroughly enjoy. In the Black Friday example, many consumers end up with unwanted merchandise just because of the sales.

But what about when someone obtains freebies sinisterly with coercive methods to get it? Corruption and ill gotten gains often bring intense pleasure to the thief because of similar feelings of receiving something meaningful for nothing or minimal exchange.

Psychologists call it "dupers delight". Corruption horders will often give unknown subconsciously controlled smiles and smirks when thinking of or recalling their loot due to the pleasure of fooling others for free.

But free corruption too comes with hidden costs. Perpetrators often owe lots of people cover-up money. They also may lack sleep due to fears of being caught. They may also hold cognitive dissonance as they public proclaim integrity it public, work, or religious services all the while hoarding illegal corruption proceeds.

So whether receiving legitimate free things or illegal free loot, always remember and consider the hidden costs that almost always accompany such rewards.