Is the spam code tough enough?

Questions have been raised in the internet community about whether the Direct Marketing Association and Advertising Standards Authority's new restrictions on unsolicited email -- spam -- are tight enough.

Questions have been raised in the internet community about whether the Direct Marketing Association and Advertising Standards Authority’s new restrictions on unsolicited email – spam – are tight enough.

DMA chief executive Keith Norris agrees that the language contained in a new code of conduct for e-marketers is “not scientific” and is susceptible to the individual judgement of the marketer concerned. The key clause which has sparked objections says “unrequested marketing communications must not be sent by email unless they are relevant to the existing relationship between an organisation and its customer."

This leaves the question of defining an “existing relationship”, say objectors, many from the Internet Society of New Zealand (Isocnz). “If I bought something from [the merchant] five years ago, might they judge this to be an ‘existing relationship’ justifying continued spam?” asks one.

The term “relevant” is more important than “existing relationship”, Norris says. “I wouldn’t call [an email today] relevant if it related to [a purchase made] five years ago.”

Getting New Zealand merchants to appreciate where the limits of relevance lie may not be too difficult a task, he says. “The New Zealand marketing community, and particularly the e-marketing community, is a closed shop.

Everyone knows everyone else.” If a direct marketer were out of line with generally accepted practice on its idea of relevance or “existing relationship”, it would quickly experience peer pressure to conform.

“I urge them to apply the [Paul] Holmes test,” he says. “That is: if you were interviewed by Holmes on television, could you defend your contention that your actions were relevant [to previous dealings with the customer]?”

The code is part of the formation of an eMarketing Standards Authority – a joint project of the ASA and DMA (see E-commerce code of practice comes together).

The code was only officially launched last week, Norris notes, “and we’re not going to see change overnight. The concept of opt-in email marketing [where a customer volunteers to receive email from the merchant] is almost new,” and it will take some time for merchants to apply agreed standards to the area, he says.

The majority of spam email to his mailbox comes from overseas, he says, and that is doubtless so for most people. The code of conduct will naturally have no direct power over such spamming, but the New Zealand body is “far from powerless” on an international front. The New Zealand DMA, along with 38 other national bodies, has a representative on an international federation, he says.

“Because we’re a small stable country, without major alliances with countries like the US, we’re seen as non-threatening and we have a bigger influence [on the international stage] than people might expect."

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