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.
- Can we stop being tricked into subscriptions?
- Amazon accused of tricking Prime customers
- The (un)surprising economics of subscriptions
- New rules ban subscription traps and fake reviews
- UK to make fake reviews illegal and tackle ‘subscription traps’
- Half a billion pounds spent on subscriptions that rolled over without people realising during the cost-of-living crisis
- UK plans to ease cancelling subscriptions come under fire
- Dark patterns: how online companies strive to keep your money and data when you try to leave
BBC News, Vishala Sri-Pathma (25/6/23)
BBC News, Natalie Sherman (21/6/23)
Financial Times, Louis Ashworth (15/8/23)
BBC News, Zoe Kleinman (25/4/23)
The Guardian, Joanna Partridge (20/4/22)
Citizens Advice Press Release (1/12/22)
Financial Times, Michael O’Dwyer and Daniel Thomas (7/7/23)
The Conversation, Richard Whittle and Stuart Mills (10/10/23)
- Enhancing consumer rights: policy summary brief
- Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill
Department for Business & Trade and Department for Science, Innovation & Technology (23/4/23)
UK Parliament (14/9/23)
- Outline some theories from behavioural economics that might help to explain why people sometimes end up with unwanted subscriptions.
- Discuss some of the potential benefits of auto-renewal subscriptions for both consumers and firms.
- Using behavioural economic theory, explain some of the potential disadvantages for businesses of using auto-renewal subscriptions.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Explain what are meant by ‘dark patterns’. How may the choice architecture on some sites actually hinder consumer choice?