Traditionally, spam has been associated with the lowest of the low. Lowlife excuses for humanity with a despicable lack of morals, questionable grammar, and a penchant for scamming honest people out of their hard-earned savings. Equally despicable are the hackers, distributing malware to propagate botnets, cause mayhem in the name of a fuzzy cause, or, like the animals that they are, steal from those who can’t afford to lose it. But what’s been largely overlooked has been the thin red line separating the black world of spam and the rising epidemic of ‘legitimate’ spam. Often referred to as retail spam (perhaps in an effort to somehow make it seem more acceptable), this epidemic has, in some very real ways, rapidly overshadowed the severity of traditional spam. It’s made the minefield far more precarious for end users, who rarely care whether the source of the spam is ‘legitimate’ or not.
Papa John’s Pizza, the third largest pizza chain in the US, is normally known for its delicious pizza and homey, ‘I want to be your best friend’ TV ads helmed by Papa John founder John Schnatter. Now, however, it may become the poster child for consumer rage by resoundingly hitting Papa John’s where a business thrives: in its bank account. That’s why a $250 million class-action lawsuit was filed in Seattle US District Court on November 12, in a consumer-driven move that just screams STOP IT!
The suit alleges that, in early 2010, Papa John’s violated state and federal laws by sending 500,000 unsolicited SMS messages to its customers. The messages pushed Papa John’s deals and were sent by mass texting service OnTime4U, proving two things: you should never trust any organization that substitutes 4 for ‘for’ or U for ‘you’, and that there’s a consumer-driven tide rising against organizations bent on bugging you without your expressed permission.
According to a PC Magazine article, OnTime4U is also listed as a defendant. Erin Chutich, one of the suit’s plaintiffs, bemoans that “Papa John’s never asked permission to send…text message advertisements. Hopefully, this will be an important victory for consumers. Our lawsuit is about keeping spam from spreading from our email to our cell phones.”
Amen. A common practice of retailers is to ask for a phone number, email address, or postal code when consumers make a purchase. It’s akin to a stranger walking up to you on the street and asking to rifle through your wallet, yet consumers willingly give the information. Although providing this information should be optional, this writer has experienced instances where a sale couldn’t proceed without this personally-identifying information. Now, in all humility, this practice should be as illegal as sin! But confoundingly, it happens all the time, governments do nothing, and people barely bat an eyelash.
Are the tides changing?
Spam is spam, period. The legitimacy of the sender doesn’t matter, nor does the delivery method. The family of spam was originally limited to the junk in a snail mail box, but it now includes email, social media and SMS (is television next?), and the frustration of users is at an all-time high. Retailers, it seems, don’t seem to get that. They aren’t quite as intelligent as you might give them credit for, like the handsome guy sitting quietly at a party. He benefits from staying silent, looking cool and intelligent, but when he opens his mouth, he announces himself as an idiot. Technology makes our lives easier, but we often forget that it makes the lives of retailers easier, too. Retail creep – the phenomenon of retailers extending sales seasons to maximize sales opportunities and increase profits – has gone from the foolish to the ludicrous, and if recent developments – like the Papa John’s lawsuit – are any indication, users plan on having the final say on this violation of privacy and sanity. Whether the consumers are successful is up to the courts, but this action could spark a trend that strikes a decisive blow against the spam epidemic. At very least, Papa John’s will have to shell out for its legal troubles.
Something has to be done. Spam laws across the globe are spotty and vary in their level of enforcement and effectiveness. Some countries, like the US and Australia, have been moderately successful in slapping the wrists of organizations that cross the line into the realm of spammers, while others not so much, and the crap in our inboxes continues to pile up.
It’s time to say STOP!