Tag: dark patterns

Policy makers have become increasingly concerned about what the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) describe as ‘negative option marketing’. These are marketing deals that contain the following feature:

a term or condition that allows a seller to interpret a customer’s silence, or failure to take affirmative action, as an acceptance of an offer.

For example, companies such as Amazon, Apple, Spotify and Netflix may offer students a 3-month free trial or 3-month introductory offer (at a special lower price) for movie and music streaming services. However, many of these subscription contracts contain an example of negative option marketing – auto renewal clauses.

Problems with auto-renewal contracts

The inclusion of an auto-renewal clause means that if a customer fails to cancel the subscription at the end of the three-month period, the subscription automatically reverts to its full price. The full-price contract then continues to roll-over indefinitely unless the customer takes a pre-specified action to terminate the deal. Inattentive consumers could end up paying subscription prices that far exceed their willingness to pay.

Auto-renewal contracts are not just an issue with free trials/introductory offers. Some people may purchase subscription contracts at the full price and then forget about them. These consumers could end up paying fees for months after they have effectively stopped using the service.

Another potential problem with the use of auto-renewal contracts, is businesses deliberately making the cancellation process more complex than it needs to be. In many cases it takes just one click to sign up for the subscription, but multiple clicks through a series of menus to cancel. Some businesses do not provide consumers with the option to cancel online and, instead, they are forced to phone a number that is often very busy.

Effects on consumer welfare

To what extent do these problems caused by auto-renewal reduce consumer welfare? What evidence do we have?

Research by Citizens Advice found that just over one in four people (26 per cent) had signed up to a subscription by accident. 58 per cent of this group forgot to cancel a free trial, while 21 per cent did not realise that the free trial would automatically roll-over to a full-price subscription. This seems to be a particular issue for those on low incomes with 46 per cent of people on Universal Credit signing up to a subscription by accident.

Analysis by the Department for Business and Trade (DBT) has tried to estimate the value of these unwanted subscriptions. The study found that consumers spent £602 million on unwanted subscriptions where a free or reduced-price trial had been rolled over to the full price. The same study also found that £573 million was spent on subscriptions that people had forgotten about.

One in five people in the Citizens Advice study who tried to cancel a subscription found the process difficult. The DBT estimates that cancellation difficulties led to £382 million being spent on unwanted subscriptions.

UK Government response

In response to these findings, the government introduced the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill into Parliament in April 2023.

Provisions in the Bill seek to standardise the information that businesses must provide consumers before they sign up for subscription contracts. For example, in the future, firms will have to display prominently (a) any auto-renewal provisions, (b) whether the price increases after a specified period, (c) details about how consumers can terminate the contract and (d) cooling-off periods.

The Bill also stipulates that businesses will have to provide consumers with reminders when a free/reduced-price trial period is about to end and/or a subscription is about to renew automatically. They must also make it easy to exit contracts and remove any unnecessary steps.

The government initially considered an additional measure that would force businesses to provide consumers with the option to take out any subscription without auto-renewal.

Citizens Advice strongly supported this policy. They argued that not only should consumers be given the choice, but that auto-renewal should not be the default i.e. people would have to opt-in to auto-renewal subscriptions.

However, after the consultation process for the Bill, the government decided against introducing this additional measure. Businesses have also argued that the other elements of the policy are too prescriptive.


Government documents


  1. Outline some theories from behavioural economics that might help to explain why people sometimes end up with unwanted subscriptions.
  2. Discuss some of the potential benefits of auto-renewal subscriptions for both consumers and firms.
  3. Using behavioural economic theory, explain some of the potential disadvantages for businesses of using auto-renewal subscriptions.
  4. When businesses deliberately make the cancellation process more complex than it needs to be, it is referred to as an example of ‘sludge’. Explain the meaning of ‘sludge’ in more detail, referring to some different examples in your answer.
  5. What difference do you think it would make to the number of people signing up for auto-renewal subscriptions if you had to opt-in as opposed to opting out? Explain your answer.
  6. Another policy would be to force firms to cancel subscription contracts if there is evidence that consumers have not used the service for a long period of time. Discuss some of the advantages and disadvantages of this measure.
  7. Explain what are meant by ‘dark patterns’. How may the choice architecture on some sites actually hinder consumer choice?

Many of you may have heard of nudge – the idea that governments can help people make better decisions by carefully designing the way a policy is structured and presented. Have you heard of sludge?

The most widely cited example of a nudge is changing a default option. The default option is what happens if you do nothing. For example, when you start a new job, are you automatically enrolled into the pension scheme or do you have to do something (i.e. fill-in an on-line form) to opt-in to the scheme. Changing the default option to one of being automatically enrolled in a scheme seems to have a big impact on the choices people make.

Recently, policy makers have started referring to ‘sludge’. Sludge is the opposite of nudge: i.e. characteristics about design and presentation that make it more difficult for people to make good decisions. Some businesses may use sludge to encourage consumers to spend more on their goods than they ever intended.

One interesting application of sludge is in the design of websites – referred to as Dark Patterns. The following are a number of different categories of dark pattern:

The last example, Forced Continuity, refers to the use of free trial periods and automatic renewal of contracts. Many people sign up for a free trial or special offer with the full intention of cancelling before the account automatically switches to the standard price.

How often do people simply forget or never quite get around to cancelling these deals when the time comes? Some recent evidence comes from a YouGov Survey. Forty-seven percent of respondents to this survey reported having accidently signed up for an annual subscription because they either forgot or were unable to cancel their account. The estimated total cost of unwanted subscriptions per year was £837 million. The same YouGov survey found that one in eight people kept paying for over four months before finally getting around to cancelling.

One business has recently seen an opportunity to help people deal with this problem. Free Trial Surfing is a new App developed by the company, Do Not Pay. It became available via Apple’s App store in September but is not yet compatible with Android devices. It works in the following way.

When customers download the app, they receive a new credit card number and a false name. Although Do Not Pay register the card details to their own business, the customer can use the information to sign up for a free trial of a good or service. In effect, Do Not Pay acts as an intermediary between the firm offering the promotion and the user. Once the free trial period ends, the app automatically cancels the subscription. Importantly, the new credit card details only work when someone signs up for a free trial. Consumers cannot use it to purchase any other products. Obviously one major drawback to the app is that a consumer would have to sign up again with their own personal credit card if they wanted to continue to use the service after the free trial ends. Businesses may also try to block the use of Do Not Pay credit card numbers for their services.

It will be interesting to see if other businesses come up with interesting ways of helping us to deal with sludge.



  1. Give three different examples of nudges.
  2. What policies do government typically use to change peoples’ behaviour? How do these traditional approaches differ from nudge?
  3. Identify some biases from behavioural economics that might help to explain why so many people fail to cancel subscriptions once a free trial period ends.
  4. Choose two other types of dark pattern and explain how they might prevent people from making decisions that maximise their own welfare.