Ethics and Rules Are not Enough to Reduce E-Mail Ad Spam



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The Direct Marketing Association's new rules on how its members should send e-mail advertisements and treat customer data is a very good step. However, a technical solution is needed to foil pure-trash spammers.

News Analysis


On 4 February 2002, the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) announced new rules governing the way its members use e-mail advertisements and treat consumers' personal information. The DMA issued the new rules as "part of a continuing effort to promote higher ethical standards among marketers." According to the DMA, members must:

  • "Disclose the marketer's identity"

  • Make the subject line "clear, honest, and not misleading"

  • "Provide specific contact information at which the individual can opt out of in-house lists or restrict transfer of their information to other marketers"

  • "Provide information on how consumers can obtain service or information"

  • Make the marketer's street address "available in the e-mail solicitation or by a link to the marketer's Web site"

  • "'Scrub' e-mail lists obtained through third-party marketers using The DMA’s e-Mail Preference Service suppression file"


Gartner applauds this effort of the direct marketing community to police itself. It has taken these steps for two reasons. First, the amount of spam and unsolicited commercial e-mail continues to grow rapidly. Gartner estimates that commercial e-mail from honest e-mail advertisers constitutes just 20 percent of the total. A public annoyed at the inconvenience of spam and alarmed at the potential abuse of their personal information increasingly pressures the government to step in with regulations. The DMA wants to prove the industry can regulate itself.

Second, the sheer volume of spam, especially from dishonest advertisers and scam artists, dilutes the effectiveness of legitimate commercial e-mail. DMA hopes that the new rules will help distinguish the honest e-mail ads more clearly and build trust with customers. In fact, Gartner believes that the DMA's rules mark only the latest in what will become a stream of initiatives intended to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys.

However, ethical practices in themselves will not suffice. The bad guys will continue to emulate the practices of the ethical senders. Recipients also need a way to authenticate a sender or check the validity of a vendor (see Gartner FirstTake FT-15-4249 "Truste Can Help Solve the Growing Problem of Spam"). Most of the "pure trash" spammers have sufficiently low budgets that they won't be able to take this step to keep up with the good guys. By contrast, ethical senders can add tags or keys without great cost, and doing so will enable them to keep consumers from associating them with those who continually annoy the recipients.

Analytical Source: Joyce Graff, Intranets & Electronic Workplace

Need to Know: Reference Material and Recommended Reading

  • “Antispam Ruling Will Benefit E-Mail Advertisers and Recipients” ( FT-15-2409 ) If legitimate businesses follow consistent conventions such as those outlined in the California law, automated agents can help recipients get what they want and screen out unwanted flyers. By Joyce Graff

  • “Keeping Spam Out of Your E-Mail” ( TU-15-0487 ) Describes four types of spam and antispam products that offer four levels of control. By Joyce Graff

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© 2002 Gartner, Inc. and/or its Affiliates. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction and distribution of this publication in any form without prior written permission is forbidden. The information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable. Gartner disclaims all warranties as to the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of such information. Although Gartners research may discuss legal issues related to the information technology business, Gartner does not provide legal advice or services and its research should not be construed or used as such. Gartner shall have no liability for errors, omissions or inadequacies in the information contained herein or for interpretations thereof. The opinions expressed herein are subject to change without notice.

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