Some would trace the start to spam to 1997, before the term itself was even used, when one Alan M. Ralsky started sending fake email messages, eventually totaling 70 million a day. The so-called “Spam King” allegedly ramped up in 2004, a year after CAN-SPAM was passed, sending billions of emails for Chinese pennystocks over the next few years, and was indicted along with several other parties in 2007, receiving a reduced prison sentence in return for cooperation, according to published reports.
Fortunately, that’s not the timeline being used this year as we celebrate the “40th anniversary of spam,” as some wags refer to it. More accurate writers call it the 40th birthday of email marketing.
In one such history, Marketing Land reports that the term spam, based on a Monty Python skit about the canned breakfast meat, was first applied to unsolicited email in 1998.
We wonder about that — it’s like trying to affix the precise birth of the term “junk mail.” But it sounds like as good a date as any other.
AOL, Hotmail and Yahoo were already active in email by ’98. And consumers were becoming annoyed with the deluge of offers, so the providers began adding “junk” folders.
Of course, if you want to get technical about it, the sending of unsolicited electronic messages started in 1864, when scam artists sent fraudulent investment offers via Western Union, according to one history. At this point, con men had been active in postal mail for several decades.
But no — we trace the real birth of email marketing to May 3, 1978, when Digital Equipment Corp.’s Gary Thuerk sent a message to 400 prospects via ARPANET. Here’s a sample of the catchy cop
DIGITAL WILL BE GIVING A PRODUCT PRESENTATION OF THE NEWEST MEMBERS OF THE DECSYSTEM-20 FAMILY; THE DECSYSTEM-2020, 2020T, 2060, AND 2060T. THE DECSYSTEM-20 FAMILY OF COMPUTERS HAS EVOLVED FROM THE TENEX OPERATING SYSTEM AND THE DECSYSTEM-10 COMPUTER ARCHITECTURE. BOTH THE DECSYSTEM-2060T AND 2020T OFFER FULL ARPANET SUPPORT UNDER THE TOPS-20 OPERATING SYSTEM.
“THE DECSYSTEM-2060 IS AN UPWARD EXTENSION OF THE CURRENT DECSYSTEM 2040 AND 2050 FAMILY. THE DECSYSTEM-2020 IS A NEW LOW END MEMBER OF THE DECSYSTEM-20 FAMILY AND FULLY SOFTWARE COMPATIBLE WITH ALL OF THE OTHER DECSYSTEM-20 MODELS.”
WE INVITE YOU TO COME SEE THE 2020 AND HEAR ABOUT THE DECSYSTEM-20 FAMILY AT THE TWO PRODUCT PRESENTATIONS WE WILL BE GIVING IN CALIFORNIA THIS MONTH. THE LOCATIONS WILL BE:
TUESDAY, MAY 9, 1978 – 2 PM
HYATT HOUSE (NEAR THE L.A. AIRPORT)
LOS ANGELES, CA
THURSDAY, MAY 11, 1978 – 2 PM
DUNFEY’S ROYAL COACH
That “email” purportedly brought in $13 million in business, according to one account.
As for poor Ralsky, he may or may not deserve his infamy. But he was himself victimized when anti-spam advocates signed him up on mailing lists. He perhaps spoke for all consumers when he told the Detroit News: “They’ve signed me up for every advertising campaign and mailing list there is. These people are out of their minds. They’re harassing me.”