When Dr. Robert Spiegel decided to expand his decade-old practice, he did what banks, supermarkets, politicians and many others have done for years: He gave stuff away.
The Baltimore dentist mailed out 1,500 refrigerator magnets and gave free T-shirts to new patients and for referrals from existing ones.
"It's a great concept," said Spiegel, who added 75 families to his patient base over the past year. "They'll always think positive of you . . . and they (the giveaways) are a constant marketing tool since they have my name and phone number on them.
"I have patients who tell me their grandchildren are fighting over who gets to wear the T-shirts."
The appeal of consumer freebies is stronger than ever these days as Spiegel and many businesses and groups have discovered. The national recession may be over, but frugality lingers among people still struggling with layoffs, stagnant wages and a feeling that the American Dream may be slipping away.
The desire for freebies has spawned a multimillion-dollar industry of books, magazines, catalogues and newsletters that provide lists of free or nearly free items people can send away for. (The publications are not free, however.)
"The lists are enormous. . . . The problem is most people don't know what to ask for," said Matthew Lesko, who runs Information USA Inc. in Kensington, Md., which publishes dozens of books on free or low-cost offers. Among his latest: "1001 Free Goodies & Cheapies," which sells for $19.95.
"I think we've all been trained to buy things. When you and I have a problem, we think the only way out is to buy something--a service or a product. It's such a shock when people see you can get it for free."
Lesko says the government is the biggest source of free information and services, although they are funded with taxpayer dollars.
Many agencies do give out gobs of things for the asking. The White House, for example, will send greeting cards on request for special anniversaries and birthdays or to console grieving families. The Natural History Museum in Washington will provide free educational "Shark Kits," complete with books, videos and freeze-dried sharks. (Shipping is extra.)
Everyone else seems to have their own promotions as well: Cereal makers hide free toys among their breakfast kernels; supermarkets serve sample goodies to shoppers; lawyers advertise introductory consultations; big corporations give gifts to shareholders; and politicians circulate engraved pencils or coffee mugs.
It's a way of making oneself known, introducing a product, expanding business or just promoting good will.
But how much of what's out there is really gratis, or worth having?
Not a whole lot, if you ask Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America in Washington.
"There is rarely a free lunch," Brobeck said. "Sellers offering free products or services at best will use your name for future marketing or sell it to other marketers, and at worst you will be subjected to bait-and-switch selling tactics in which you face enormous pressure to purchase a product."
Douglas D. Walsh, an assistant attorney general with the Consumer Protection Division for Washington state, says he's all too familiar with complaints about health clubs offering trial memberships with intense verbal workouts from salespeople or travel companies that overcharge for accommodations while providing "free" air fare.
"The whole concept of 'free' is fraught with the capacity to mislead a substantial number of consumers," he said.
Some freebies are relatively harmless. There are the hats or bats given at baseball games, which most people know are included in overall ticket prices. There are the complimentary cosmetic-counter toiletries, which are really nicely packaged free samples that don't have a true retail value as claimed since they're never sold.
Others are not so harmless--like the phony telemarketer who tries to steal credit card numbers with the promise of bogus prizes or products.
The Federal Trade Commission has strict guidelines against deceptive pricing, including what merchants can call "free." For example, conditional offers, such as buy-one-get-one-free deals, must be spelled out prior to a sale.
"You really have to ask yourself, 'Independent of this free offer, is this something I'd want to own?' " said Walsh, who is also co-author of "Getting Unscrewed and Staying That Way, The Sourcebook of Consumer Protection."
While many might not need or want them, the allure of freebies is often so irresistible that some people will pay money to find them.
Bruce Lansky, who runs the children's book publisher Meadowbrook Press in Deephaven, Minn., says his "Free Stuff For Kids" book, which costs $5, is consistently among his top three sellers, having sold nearly 4 million copies since 1978.
Thomas Stephens, owner of Publisher Inquiry Services in Boca Raton, Fla., which advertises shopping catalogues, says the most popular titles include "1001 Things You Can Get Free," and "Free Stuff From Uncle Sam," each costing $2.
Companies sponsoring giveaways have their own success stories.
About a year ago, Banc One Inc. in Austin, Tex., added $5 million in checking account deposits from University of Texas freshmen following an on-campus promotion that included free T-shirts and memo boards.
Computer Associates International Inc. in Islandia, N.Y., which recently gave out 1 million copies of personal finance software, says about half the takers continue to use the software and are likely to buy updated versions.
And Dr. Spiegel, the Baltimore dentist, says he expects to take on even more patients and recoup the $5,000 he spent on his promotion within a year.
It's difficult to measure all the products or services that are given away. However, the Specialty Advertising Assn. International estimates 15,000 types of promotional products (the stuff with company logos on them) are handed out each year, with apparel and writing instruments leading the pack. It said $5.2 billion in promotional products were sold to corporations or groups that gave them away.
Much of the freebies have very little value, perhaps a few cents, or a few dollars for a shirt or cosmetics. Lesko admits that much of the giveaways are actually rubbish.
Occasionally, there are bona fide freebies worth knowing about.
Eileen Langevin, of North Providence, R.I., learned through one of Lesko's books about a drug giveaway program in which several pharmaceutical companies participated.
The retired office manager, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, says the free drugs she received saved her $600 a month in prescription costs for about a year. She's now on public assistance.
"It took my whole Social Security check to get my medicine and there was nothing left," Mrs. Langevin said. "It took a little perseverance . . . and a lot of letter writing" to get the medicine, "but it was worth it."