The Slippery Slope of Stopping Spam

By Peter L DeHaan

Do you like spam? Does anyone? I’m not talking about the luncheon meat product SPAM®, which is produced by Hormel Foods Corporation, but rather the inundation of unwanted messages that increasingly plagues us. Unless you happen to be one of those who delight in propagating spam messages, I am confident that you concur with me that spam is a problem.

Unfortunately, defining spam is easier said than done. What constitutes spam to some may be acceptable communications to others. Just as in 1964 when Justice Potter Stewart famously said of obscenity, “I can't define it, but I know it when I see it,” the same can be said of spam. In similar fashion, I too, can quickly spot spam, but coming up with a concise, compelling, and complete clarification is an elusive endeavor. Nevertheless, here is my definition: Spam is an unwanted message that is offensive, illegal, or intrusive.

Spam email messages can take on many forms of varying severity: pornographic, obscene, offensive, illegal, scams and cons, viruses, virus warnings, chain letters, sales solicitations, undesired attachments (especially when they are large), and even thoughtless email forwards. It is safe to say that email spam has reached endemic proportions, leading some to say that email use, as ubiquitous as it currently is, will be decimated in the near future. Others, however, boldly predict that the increasing flow of spam will be reversed, curtailed, and stopped within two years. My view is that reality will end up in the middle of these two extremes.

Some claim that filters are the key, but attempts to filter spam often have the side effect of blocking legitimate messages. I have experienced this on both the sending and receiving side of the equation. At one time, I made extensive use of Microsoft Outlook’s “rules” to search for and automatically move spam to a separate folder, which I reviewed once a week. Invariably, I would find legitimate messages in my spam folder, some of which were time-critical. Also, I invested an excessive amount of time writing new rules to capture additional spam that had been designed to bypass spam filters such as mine. My conclusion is that it takes less time to simply delete spam messages as they arrive than to try to maintain an effective filter. Even though much of my email each day is spam, I only spend a couple minutes a day deleting it. Also, the interruption caused by spam email (assuming you batch your email) is negligible.

Now, let’s return to my definition of spam: Spam is an unwanted message that is offensive, illegal, or intrusive. Notice that I did not used the word email. Although spam messages are associated with email, I submit that any unwanted message is spam, requiring time for a response and causing an interruption of more important activities. Consider the following:

Popup Ads: When surfing the Web, or at least certain websites and portals, popup ads become a navigational hazard. The more annoying ones blast you with music or sound. The infuriating ones are next to impossible to close. Popup ads, we are told, are used because enough people click on them to justify the ads’ continued use. I must admit that even I have clicked on a few myself, albeit accidentally. The time required to deal with popup ads, unless you are a hard-core web surfer or have low sales resistance, is minor. The interruption to efficiently navigating the World Wide Web is moderate.

Direct Mail: The concept of an unwanted message as applied to direct mail has been given the label of junk mail. It used to be that I would sort through the mail when it arrived, cull the junk mail, and throw it in the trash. But now, with concerns of identity theft rampant, I find myself opening every piece of junk mail, pulling out anything with personal information on it and shredding it. This takes time and is an added annoyance. I suppose that this effort averages me about five minutes a day. As such, junk mail actually takes more time to deal with than spam email messages. Fortunately, this processing of junk mail is not a true interruption, as I can handle it at a time I choose.

Door-to-Door: Incredibly, I have experienced an increase in door-to-door solicitations over the past couple years. While I am proficient at hitting the delete key for email, closing pop-up ads, shredding junk mail, and quickly ending a telemarketing call, I find it difficult to literally close the door on someone. After telling phone representatives that I am not interested, I have no problem hanging up if they keep jabbering, yet I have never shut my front door on someone who won’t take no for an answer. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen too often. Even so, the interruption is a key annoyance.

Radio: These are broadcast mediums, in which content cannot be targeted, but is intended for the masses. Radio commercials occur between 12 and 16 minutes every hour and with the average adult reportedly listening to the radio three hours per day, which results in about 45 minutes of unwanted messages per day.

Television: With television, there is even more time devoted to commercials. Surveys consistently put the number of commercial minutes per hour for TV at 16 and higher (over 20 for daytime TV). With various studies claiming three to five hours of TV watching per day, this adds up to an hour or more of unwanted messages each day. Granted, we have trained ourselves to do productive things during these times (grab a snack, run to the bathroom, or take out the trash) or do semi-productive things, like channel surf or get an update on the score of the game; still a great deal of time is wasted.

Adding radio and TV commercials together approach or exceed two hours of unwanted messages a day. Isn’t this just another form of spam? Yes, but one that we have been conditioned to accept and tolerate.

Telemarketing: For most consumers an outbound telemarketing call is unwanted and therefore it fits the previous definition of spam. With the advent of the national do-not-call (DNC) law, many consumers, like me, have registered our residential numbers. This has stopped all phone solicitations to my home. In the past year or so, the number of telemarketing calls to my office has increased from a couple a month to a couple per day!  Some days when the number of unwanted calls exceeds the number of wanted calls.

(Politicians realized that it was politically advantageous to dramatically curtail outbound telemarketing by enacting a national DNC law. In short, they were willing to effectively destroy an industry and thwart a cost-effective means of marketing, increase the marketing costs of most companies, and further retard a slowly recovering economy for the sole purpose of political expediency. Note that Congress exempted themselves from their own restrictions, giving testament to their belief in the effectiveness of outbound telemarketing.)

Faxing: Unsolicited faxing is currently illegal and more onerous restrictions are ahead.  

Direct Mail: Currently, there are advocates for legislation to do to direct mail what DNC did to outbound calling – effectively stop it.  

Email: There are already serious calls for a “do not email” law (not that it would work). Or levying a punitive surcharge on each email sent.

With fax, mail, and email as targets, could all forms of proactive marketing be far behind? We all need marketing. Businesses need to promote products or services and consumers need to be informed about options.  

You can help; quite simply, make sure that your message is not viewed as spam.

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