Lie culture: why spam works

If you look through your spam email folder, or back through our blog articles, it very quickly becomes clear that they mostly try to convince you to do some or all of the following:

  • run some malware (that sends more spam)
  • buy some sex (usually through the intermediate form of some pills)
  • buy some money (by spending less money)

Reading a spam email, it’s usually painfully clear that these claims are fantastical; they can’t possibly be true and anyone that falls for them is obviously one pepper pot short of a cruet set. Spam is seen as an annoyance rather than a threat. Yet the spammers are still making money. Grandma is still clicking on MatlockScreensaver.exe, otherwise sane adults are still paying customs fees to receive the millions left to them in their long-lost uncle’s will, and little Johnny who didn’t get a date for the prom is still hoping that this next bottle of pills from the internet will give him the length and girth he needs to enter into a healthy, fulfilling, long term relationship.

Why do people fall for such obvious lies? To us, and I would imagine to everyone reading this blog, these claims seen in spam are obviously spurious. But consider that we have more information than the average person: we first recognise these messages as spam and then consider the validity of advertising claims in that context. Without such a knowledge of technology and spam, we’d have to consider these claims in the context of other adverts, and perhaps compare them to the content legitimate companies put in their emails. Do they still seem as ridiculous then?

The blurb on the back of a packet of loo rolls tells me in no uncertain terms that the CEO has dedicated his or her life to the pursuit of the perfect bog roll. The website of a clothing company tells me that they are the “world’s foremost outfitter”. Yes, if I were to graph the foremostness of all outfitters in the world, these people have assured me that they would be right at the top. Everything is best ever, market leader, #1, satisfaction guaranteed or your money back (as long as you haven’t actually used any of the product).

These are fairly innocuous examples. Tune in to the UK’s Channel 4 in late afternoon — around Countdown time — and you’ll see TV adverts for debt consolidation and injury compensation making claims that would be right at home in an email from OfficialDebtAdministor2009@yahoo.cn.

Even for products you actually do want to buy, there’s usually a ton of advertising cruft to cut through before you can find out what it actually is, or does, or costs. This is what everyone expects and what they’re used to; it has become the norm. When spammers do the same, some people don’t see a difference. Spammers prey on the vulnerable, the gullible, the charitable and the greedy, and mainstream advertising has made it easy for them.