Forward into the Past

A few weeks ago I wrote about a conversation I had with a friend when he asked me, "Is e-mail still a viable way to reach anybody? I've been getting so much spam lately that I've started to trash anything that I don't instantly recognize." I assured him that not only is e-mail marketing still very viable, but is still one of the most effective ways to drive branding and direct response efforts.

However, his comments got me thinking about the state of the industry. The U.S. Justice Department announced late last month that it had arrested dozens of people across the country as part of their crackdown on spam, identity theft, and other fraudulent online activities. However, this coincides with an announcement from companies like Brightmail and Symantec who predict that spam currently accounts for 65 percent of all e-mail traffic (up from 50 percent a year ago).

While most of us aren't celebrating this news, it should be pointed out that spam represents just another part of the natural cycle of advertising that we have seen many times before.

The rise of advertising in the United States has a colorful past. While advertising in the form of signs and notices has been around since the Romans, in the United States, advertising started to come into its own during the early 1870s. It was a time of great change for the country as the nation started a move from an agricultural society to an industrial one. Advertising grew and helped to spur the rise of a marketing system that in turn promoted the growth of the railroad industry. Other new inventions of the time included the telephone, cars, electrical generators, and large printing presses.

During this same time, the population of the country rose dramatically from 38 million in 1870 to about 76 million by 1900. With the increase in population came the opportunity to reach a greater number of people with a greater number of new products and services.

While newspapers have been around in one form or another since the mid 1700s, print ads really took off during the 1870s with many of the ads focusing on the sale of tonics, elixirs, and other patent-medicines that claimed to cure every disease and ailment in existence. Much of this market was spurred by the end of the Civil War which had created a need for medical aid among many veterans. In most cases the patent medicines being promoted were bottles of 80-proof whisky with various herbs thrown in for good measure. Paradoxically, the largest volume periodicals of the time were often the church-based religious or temperance papers which gladly accepted the advertising dollars that the patent medicine vendors were willing to spend. It is estimated that a full 75 percent of all ads running in these publications at the time were for these patent medicines.

Patent medicines continued to dominate the media toward the end of the nineteenth century with their often outlandish claims giving all forms of advertising a bad name. As a result, many print ads of the time were looked upon with suspicion.

In 1892 the Ladies Home Journal was the first periodical to ban all medical advertising in an effort to get rid of the patent medicine vendors and other charlatans who offered dubious medical cures and treatments. This unleashed a wave of efforts to do away with the industry as a whole and by 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed to protect the health of the public by controlling advertising and claims of medical benefit.

Spam isn't a forever thing. It will run its course and once it's been shown to be more work or risk than it's worth, unscrupulous advertisers will go off in search of something new. In the meantime we can focus on making e-mail marketing the effective tool that it already is.

As wise people throughout the ages have said, "This too shall pass."

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