An Overdue “Thanks” to Spammers

I sat down this morning to what has (perhaps just a little sadly) become my usual breakfast ritual: bowl of over-sugared cereal, laptop open to read the latest news, and puppy chewing on random unauthorized objects.

I opened my email to browse my regular newsletters. To my surprise, some spam had snuck its way past my filter. (I use a fantastic third-party spam filter and email service called Mailshell. Check it out if you haven’t already.) One of the messages promised to rid my world of annoying pop-up and pop-under ads. A little ironic, I thought, to use the Web’s most passionately and universally despised marketing tactic — unsolicited commercial email — to push a product, the sole purpose of which is to eliminate what’s arguably the Web’s second most hated ad format.

It got even worse. I opened my trusty browser and started surfing a little, checking my regular newsy sites. I soon encountered a pop-up ad promising to stop spam from getting through to me. So now, we’re using the second most hated ad format online to push a product aimed at eliminating the most despised online ad format. In the course of 30 minutes, a war had erupted on my computer screen. The formats that are giving our industry a bad name engaged each other in a battle royale.

Later, my friend tells me about these ridiculous pop-up ads he’s been getting that are initiated at the OS level using Windows Messenger Service.

Is it any wonder between spam, pop-ups, and spyware, users are running to ad-blocking software?

Much has been written about trying to explain what we do to our relatives. The exchange usually goes something like this:

“So,” asks the cousin, uncle, or in-law, “what do you do again?”

Trying to avoid the pitfalls, I tentatively reply, “I work for an interactive advertising agency.”

“Ah,” says the cousin, uncle, or in-law, “so you’re responsible for all the spam (or pop-ups — name your poison) I’ve been getting lately.”

Rather than start a whole discussion, the easy answer is, of course, “Yup. That’s me. I’m ruining the Internet, I’m getting rich in the process, and I’m damn proud of it.”

OK, it’s petty. On some level, your relatives are only teasing. But deep down inside, you know it bugs you. There’s a growing throng of everyday Joes who can’t tell the difference between a legitimate, ethical marketer and one whose practices are… questionable. People are starting to place us on a level one notch above lawyers, and we’re slipping down that ladder.

Think I’m kidding? A column I wrote discussing rich media tips and the strong performance of intrusive ad formats attracted a ton of negative feedback, including a nasty note suggesting all marketers should be put to death! An extreme example, to be sure, but there are certainly people out there who don’t like us. They’re not afraid to voice their opinions.

Why do these people hate us? I can only guess at the reasons, but I’m fairly certain it has something to do with spammers’ absolutely wicked tactics. Ever received a message offering low mortgage rates that was sent by “you”? Not only with your name in the sender line, but your email address, too? Have you fallen victim to deceitful subject lines like “re: your request” and the like? I have, and I’m not alone.

Spammers are even pulling random words from other emails I send. For example, I send a lot of emails about i-FRONTIER’s back-end tracking product, called Avondale. I get a ton of email addressed to Avondale or with the subject line, “News about Avondale.” It’s misleading and downright disturbing.

What’s my point? All the purveyors of spam and marketers who operate unethically make it that much more difficult for the rest of us. We’re already fighting on so many fronts, against many difficult issues inherent in a new, growing industry. None of us needs to fight with spammers.

In a perverse way, maybe they make us better. They force us to be more sensitive to consumer privacy and to make sure that our messages — whether in email, banners, or other formats — are as targeted as they can possibly be.

I’m fully behind the “down with spam” movement, but at the same time, reluctantly, I say, “Thanks.”

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