Subscription TrapsThese Are the Subscription Services With the Most Dark Patterns

Subscription services have become a popular and convenient way for consumers to enjoy ongoing access to their favourite products and services. From streaming platforms to meal kits and more, subscriptions are all about making life easier and often, more affordable for frequent users.

A subscription service is a recurring payment model where customers pay to access a product or service regularly, typically monthly or annually. They can offer personalised experiences, convenience and better pricing for regular consumers.

Popular subscriptions in the UK include streaming services like Netflix, which offers endless entertainment for a monthly fee, or food delivery services such as Hello Fresh, which delivers fresh and personalised ingredients and recipes to your doorstep.

Unsurprisingly, subscriptions are a big deal in the UK, with Whistl, a delivery management company, estimating that 81% of UK households were signed up to at least one subscription service in 2022. UK consumers now spend £395m every year on subscriptions, with the market iset to be worth £1.8bn by 2025.

According to Opinium Research, 49% of UK adults have entertainment subscriptions, while 29% are signed up for subscription box delivery services.

Clearly, subscriptions are part of everyday life, but do we always know what we're signing up for?

What Dark Patterns Do Subscription Services Use?

As the popularity of subscriptions surges, consumers are growing increasingly cautious about the clever tactics used to keep customers longer than they might intend. Strategies, such as confusing wording, design tricks & other questionable marketing tactics are known as “dark patterns”, and can manipulate or trick consumers into signing up for subscriptions that can be difficult to cancel or cost more than initially expected.

According to Which, dark patterns use subtle tricks to take advantage of our quick decisions when shopping online. They make us spend more, share our data, and keep us subscribed longer than we might want.

There are many laws in place to protect consumers against dark patterns when shopping online, but there are still grey areas that some companies take advantage of to encourage people to spend more. Dark patterns can be as simple as offering a discount code when you sign up, or offering add-ons throughout the checkout process.

Below are some of the most common dark patterns that we identified when signing up and cancelling popular subscription services:

The UK government has taken steps to protect consumers from these unfair subscription practices by making terms clearer, cancellations easier, and auto-renewal more transparent. The CMA now also has the authority to reprimand businesses not following these practices.

New legislation passed in April 2023 aims to ensure “consumers can exit subscriptions in a straightforward, cost-effective, and timely way and require that businesses issue a reminder to consumers when a free trial or introductory offer is coming to an end.”

Those who are less tech-savvy or with limited English can be more vulnerable to these tactics. A lack of awareness and familiarity with digital platforms, as well as language barriers, make these groups easy targets. An article from the Journal of Legal Analysis titled Shining a Light on Dark Patterns suggested that “less educated consumers, the elderly, or people suffering from chronic medical conditions - are particularly susceptible to the dark pattern.”

How We Conducted the Study

Here, at NetVoucherCodes, we wanted to uncover which subscription services use the most dark patterns to help consumers make more educated decisions when they enter into contracts with subscription services.

To do this, we analysed 87 online subscription services across multiple industries from streaming to banking. A “subscription” was defined as a regular payment for a product or service.

We visited the website of each subscription service and documented the journey from sign-up to cancellation. We counted the number of dark patterns we encountered throughout the process using the Deceptive Patterns website as a reference for identifying these tactics.

It's worth noting that some dark patterns in our study are regarded as typical marketing tactics employed by many companies, such as offering an introductory offer. We've included these as they are still a means to make someone make a quick decision or spend more money.

We also analysed the terms and conditions of each service by looking at the word count of each document and the average reading age level according to the Automated Readability Index (ARI) formula to find out which are hardest to understand for the average consumer.

Why We Conducted this Study

Our research was prompted by the recent government announcement that they are actively looking into these practices and are planning on legislating to protect consumers in order to save them £1.6bn per annum. The intended purpose of our study is to champion the consumer and highlight the tactics lots of companies employ to generate extra revenue at the expense of a more straightforward subscription process. It is not intended to discredit the integrity of brands, but simply show how users need to be careful when subscribing, so they don't end up paying more than they expected when compared to the upfront lead price that initially drew them in.

An Overview of Subscription Service Transparency

Understanding what you're signing up for with a subscription service can be tricky. Companies often try to encourage customers to sign up for longer periods for a cheaper amount or upsell their most expensive packages. By employing dark patterns, they can make it hard for the consumer to understand what they're agreeing to.

While subscription services are convenient, our findings have shed light on the hidden complications presented by these popular platforms which are often overlooked.

Subscriptions Websites Employ 3.8 Dark Patterns on Average

Our research found that, on average, each subscription service employs 3.8 dark patterns during both the sign-up and cancellation processes. This results in users encountering a total of 7.6 in total. Adding extra steps and obstacles to influence the customer's decisions, they aim to make it harder to leave the service.

Broadband Providers Employ the Most Dark Patterns

Our analysis of dark patterns in subscription services revealed significant differences across categories. Broadband, shopping, and gym memberships employ the most with broadband services using a total of 6.3 dark patterns in their sign-up process alone.

In contrast, energy providers, streaming services, and gaming provide a much more transparent sign-up process.

Terms and Conditions Are More Complex Than the Recommended UK Reading Age

In our analysis, we discovered that 44% of subscription service terms and conditions are more complex than the minimum age required to use the services. A staggering 78% of these T&Cs are harder to understand than the recommended reading age for financial documents of 12-13 years as set out by Fairer Finance.

Amongst the categories we studied, music and audio subscriptions displayed the most complex T&Cs displaying an average reading age of 21. This indicates that the majority of T&Cs are not user-friendly and could be confusing for the average reader.


Number of T&Cs with wording that's harder to understand than the services minimum age


Number of T&Cs that are harder to understand than the recommended reading age of 12-13

How Hard Are Subscription T&Cs to Understand?

Subscription services often come with terms and conditions that are lengthy and complex, making it challenging for the average reader to fully understand what they are signing up for. Ultimately, this can lead to unwanted commitments which can be hard to cancel.

We looked at the total word count of each subscription's terms and conditions as well as their average reading age using the Automated Readability Index (ARI) formula to see how hard they are to understand.

Energy Provider
Mobile Phone Network
Music & Audio

Crunchyroll featured the hardest terms and conditions to understand with an ARI score of 20.2 putting its reading age at over 23 years although users of just 16 years of age can sign up for the subscription service. Glossybox featured not far behind with an ARI score of 19.08 and over 8,500 words and Paramount+ with its 5,260 word count had an ARI score of 17.45.

Sky Broadband had the longest terms and conditions in our study at a whopping 26,540 words. That's almost the same as reading four chapters of Lord of the Rings. Although it would take a long time to tackle the reading, Sky Broadband has a fairly low ARI score of 6.62 meaning it's at least easy to understand.

The easiest terms and conditions to understand were those of Virgin Money's Club M account. Although their terms and conditions were quite lengthy at over 7,000 words, they scored just 3.19 on the ARI. Their terms and conditions document is even approved by Fairer Finance, a mark of excellence that praises companies for “clear design” and “simple language”. Mobile network provider Voxi also scored low with an ARI of 4.31 and HSBC's Premier membership at just 4.43.

Generally, banks and broadband providers had low ARI scores meaning they made a conscious effort to make sure that their terms and conditions can be understood by most reading levels.

A closer look at some of the most complex T&Cs has revealed a trend where the reading age required to understand these documents is much higher than the age required to consent to the service in the first place.

A prime example is EA Play, which requires users to be at least 13 years old to subscribe. However, the T&Cs for this service display a reading age of 23+ years. This can leave younger subscribers struggling to comprehend the details of their agreement and committing to contracts they don't fully understand.

How to Save Money on Your Subscriptions

While the government is making moves to make subscriptions more transparent for customers, there are some ways to navigate the sign-up process smartly to avoid unnecessary expenses. With the right knowledge, you can avoid overspending on services you don't require.

Rebecca Bebbington
Rebecca Bebbington is an expert money-saver at NetVoucherCodes. With a history of researching and understanding subscription models, Rebecca is sharing her insights to help consumers optimise their spending, avoid common pitfalls and save money on their subscription services.

Rebecca shares her top 8 tips for smart subscription management:

  1. Using a single account like Apple for all subscriptions can help you keep track of your subscriptions and make cancellations easier. This can give you better control over your spending.
  2. Be cautious of signing up to a subscription service through a third-party platform. The terms can be quite different from the main service, so always read them thoroughly to avoid any unexpected surprises.
  3. Thinking about switching a provider because the costs are too high? Sometimes being transparent about your intention to cancel with the company can lead to them offering you a better price to keep you as a customer.
  4. To avoid charges after a free trial, set reminders to review and potentially cancel the service. Remember, not all subscriptions remind you to cancel. Some services let you enjoy the full trial even if you cancel right away, so consider cancelling immediately after signing up to avoid forgetting later!
  5. Every now and then, take a moment to review all your subscriptions. Do you really need this? Is it worth paying for? You will be surprised how often the answer is no!
  6. Family plans can offer significant savings, making them a smart choice for busy households! For example, Spotify's Premium Family plan, priced at £17.99 per month for up to 6 members living together is significantly cheaper than individual plans, which are £10.99 each. For couples, a Duo Premium plan is just £14.99 - that's a £6.99 saving per couple!
  7. Before committing to your subscription, have a look for a discount code or promotional code. A little bit of searching can secure you a great saving on the initial cost.
  8. For streaming fans, try Leapfrogging. Instead of juggling multiple streaming subscriptions, stick with one at a time. Plan your watching, enjoy, cancel, and then hop on to the next. It's a fun way to binge-watch your favourite while keeping costs low.