Ever wonder how the term “spam” came to refer to unsolicited bulk messages? Well gather ’round, kids, and I’ll drop a little nerd history on you.
In 1937, Hormel unleashed its inexplicably popular canned meat onto the world at large. They proudly dubbed this product SPAM®, which was short for (depending on whom you ask) “spiced ham” or “shoulder, pork, and ham.”
Flash forward to 1970, when British comedy troupe Monty Python highlighted the questionable foodstuff in a skit on their weekly TV show. The sketch in question involved a band of Vikings sitting around a modern diner and drowning out conversation with their incessant chanting and singing of “Spam! Spam! Spam! Spam!”
As you probably know, there’s quite a bit of overlap in the Venn diagram of computer nerds and Monty Python fans. And so when a software developer named Richard Depew accidentally posted a message 200 times to a USENET group, one of the readers jokingly referred to the incident as “spamming,” and the name stuck.
Spam currently accounts for just under 70 percent of the world’s email. And despite numerous legal and technological attempts to stem the tide, it remains as pervasive as ever. For most of us, it’s become such an ingrained part of the email experience that we don’t even notice it anymore. We simply hit Delete and move on.
But where did spam come from, and just how did it become such a popular strategy among disreputable digital marketers? Good question. What follows are some of the highlights and lowlights in the surprisingly long history of marketing spam.
- May 1864: London dentists Messrs. Gabriel send some unsolicited telegrams to members of British Parliament to let them know their office will be open from 10 till 5 through October. One of the recipients is so outraged by this “intolerable nuisance” that he writes an angry letter to the editor of The Times. The contents of the original telegram are reprinted in this letter, which means the message of Messrs. Gabriel actually reaches thousands of Londoners.
- May 1978: Gary Thuerk, a marketing manager at Digital Equipment Corp., sends out the first unsolicited mass email to 393 users on ARPANET (a precursor to the Internet) to promote a new computer model. Although the campaign does sell quite a few computers, it also generates considerable backlash among ARPANET users. To this day, Thuerk is still known as “the father of spam.”
- March 1993: Richard Depew develops Automated Retroactive Minimal Moderation (ARMM), a program designed to combat abusive online newsgroup posts. Ironically, a bug in the program causes it to post follow-ups to its own messages, resulting in 200 unintentional posts in the news.admin.policy newsgroup on USENET.
- January 1994: Clarence L. Thomas IV, a student at Andrews University, cross-posts a fundamentalist religious tract to every available newsgroup on USENET. In his post, Thomas claims that “this world’s history is coming to a climax.” The controversial message sparks debates regarding freedom of speech in the newsgroups.
- April 1994: A couple of immigration lawyers from Phoenix, Laurence A. Canter and Martha S. Siegel, use Thomas’s strategy to inundate 6,000 USENET groups with an ad for their law firm (with the title “Green Card Lottery – Final One?”). In the wake of the outcry and accusations of abusing the system, Canter and Siegel defend their actions and refer to their critics as anti-free speech “zealots.” They even publish a book about their exciting new marketing strategy entitled How to Make a Fortune on the Information Superhighway: Everyone’s Guerrilla Guide to Marketing on the Internet and Other On-Line Services. Canter and Siegel also announce their plans to open an online advertising consulting company, but it never comes to fruition.
- August 1998: The New Oxford Dictionary of English amends the existing definition of “spam” to include “irrelevant or inappropriate messages sent on the Internet to a large number of newsgroups or users.” The term is also defined as a verb meaning “to send the same message indiscriminately to (large numbers of recipients) on the Internet.”
- December 2003: President George W. Bush signs the CAN-SPAM* Act of 2003 into law. CAN-SPAM establishes some national standards with regards to commercial e-mails and empowers the Federal Trade Commission to enforce them.
- September 2004: After using his laptop to send out thousands of ads for pornographic websites over unencrypted wireless connections, Nicholas Tombros becomes the first spammer to be convicted under the CAN-SPAM Act. He is sentenced to three years’ probation and six months home detention.
- October 2008: Email spam hits a peak, accounting for 92 percent of all email traffic. This means 5.8 trillion (5,800,000,000,000) of the emails sent that month were spam messages.
- November 2008: Facebook is awarded $873 million in damages in their lawsuit against Canadian hacker Adam Guerbuez, who is accused of bombarding Facebook users with sexually explicit spam messages. Despite numerous appeals, the verdict is upheld by the Quebec Superior Court and Guerbuez is forced to file for bankruptcy.
- November 2012: Papa John’s Pizza is hit with a class-action lawsuit stemming from aggressive text message spamming in 2010. The plaintiffs are asking for $250 million, but could be awarded as much as $750 million if it can be proven that Papa John’s willfully broke the law. Oddly, the law in question isn’t CAN-SPAM, but the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991.
- June 2014: Canada enacts the Canada Anti-Spam Law (CASL), which requires organizations (including colleges and universities) to obtain express consent from users before sending them commercial email, text messages, instant messages, or social media posts. Ironically, in their zeal to comply, Canadian companies end up bombarding users with requests to subscribe or stay on their mailing lists.
- “A Brief History of Spam” (Time)
- “A Brief History of Spam” (TechnoBlimp)
- “Unsung Innovators: Gary Theurk, the Father of Spam” (Computerworld)
- “Firm Is Accused of Sending Spam, and Fight Jams Internet” (New York Times)
- “Roaming Wireless Porn Spammer Escapes Cell-Time” (Sophos)
- “Anti-Spam Law Touches Off Ironic Flurry of Email” (Coast Reporter)
- “Quebec Spammer Must Pay Facebook $873M” (CBC News)
- “Permission to Spam” (Inside Higher Ed)
*In case you’re wondering, CAN-SPAM actually stands for “Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing.” What are the odds?