Spam Culture: The Limits of Civility

Let me begin with a postulate: there was a time when legitimate businesses did not actively misrepresent themselves.

This is nostalgic: a lie, or at least an oversimplification. Confusing legitimacy of a business and absolute truthfulness on the part of any business is a mistake. Advertising is designed to change our minds by manipulating images; prices end in ninety-eight or ninety-nine cents to make things appear less expensive. Despite that, this postulate represents a worthy ideal: we should be able to trust accessible mainstream businesses to not lie outright. Many people refuse to engage with deceitful businesses; these micro-boycotts don’t amount to much, but adhering to principle feels good.

Another postulate, this one undeniable: E-mail has been glutted by spam.

It’s traditional to back this truth with some sort of evidence: In the last four weeks, I’ve received more than eight thousand pieces of spam. Filters have caught ninety-five percent or more, but several hundred have made it to my inbox.

Because spam is nearly always undesired — its distributors have no reason to believe otherwise, certainly — spammers flunk the test implied by the first postulate: they actively mislead us into believing that we want to read their e-mail, and this trickery makes them illegitimate businesses. This impression is confirmed by the products they typically sell, many of which prey on gullible and insecure consumers.

Avoiding unwanted junk mail from legitimate businesses is easy: there’s a legitimate opt-out method, and really one should have been asked to opt-in in the first place. In any case, junk mail from straight-up honest businessfolk can be put into the shredder unread.

We have been moving away from this ideal f0r a long time. In the e-mail world, it’s been dead for years, at least since spammers realized that their mail was being deleted unread and the arms race between spammers and the rest of us began.

In the snail-mail world, the situation is mixed. Most junk mail is right-out identifiable, but credit card solicitations are starting to break the rules. “Important Documents Enclosed” and “Please Do Not Discard” are commonplace on envelopes that are nothing more than applications for credit cards.

Recently, however, credit-card companies have sunk to a new low. The Bank of America (whose current ad campaign slogan is ‘higher standards,’ at least judging from the back of the envelope) has sent me several solicitations that look like this:

Bank of America credit-card solicitation envelope

Now this may look, at first glance, as though there is a credit card inside this envelope, one that has produced a rubbing on the outside by brushing up against other mail. But take a closer look:

Envelope detail thumbnail

In that picture, you can see clearly that the card impression on the envelope is not an actual impression but is instead a halftone rendering of such. (If you can’t see it, click on the image for a closer look.)

That’s right: a major issuer of credit cards has sunk so low as to lie in order to convince their potential customers to open the envelope. When it comes down to it, this is hardly different from spam with a subject line like “long time no see” or “followup on our meeting” — they’ll do anything to convince you to open that envelope. And it works, but only once.

From my perspective, sinking to spammers’ techniques reinforces my sense that I don’t want to purchase any product or service that is advertised by such a method. Apparently, though, this is atypical: I’m sure that Bank of America spent quite a bit of money researching the effects of this technique, and if it suppressed response rates, they wouldn’t have halftoned credit-card rubbings on the outside of their envelopes.

It’s difficult not to sound like a cranky old man when discussing how spam culture has lowered the already-dubious norms of advertising, but I nevertheless believe that the acceptance of spam culture by mainstream companies and the American public represents a new low.

(Thanks to Tonx for the phrase “Spam Culture.”)

2 thoughts on “Spam Culture: The Limits of Civility

  1. Spam culture is another slice of the culture of opaque outsourcing. Comment spam on blogs for instance is generated by so-called “Search Engine Optimizers”. They guarantee their clients more traffic, but likely don’t tell them what detestable thing they did to get it. It is likely (though I’m too lazy to research it) that alot of this credit card offer snailmail spam is generated by one or two contracted entities that work for several banks who (outside of maybe some middle manager in their marketing depts) have little care as to what tactics are employed.

    My mailbox has become like one of those junk email accounts i only peek at one a month or so. I can barely tell the bills from the fake bills so I ignore them all.


  2. I’ve gotten two “Pre-Approved” credit card applications from Bank of America just like this. I’ve called them about it and I get nowhere. I don’t necessarily think that this scheme is only about getting the person to open the envelope. Because once you open it and look at the card it says “Total Security Protection” Putting two and two together, it only makes sense that this company is playing off the fears of the average paranoid american. It’s a crappy thing to do. I would like to maybe goto a Bank of America with it and confront them that way. They’d probably kick me out or call the police on me. Oh well…


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