Would you like spam with that? McDonald’s pinged for spamming by Australian regulator

Macca's archesMcDonald’s Australia has been told off by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), which polices the Spam Act across all Australian jurisdictions.

The world-famous burger joint restaurant chain was deemed to have been spamming when it implemented a ‘send to friends’ feature on one of its websites.

You probably know the sort of thing I mean.

There’s a web page you’re enjoying; it contains a button labelled something like Tell A Chum; you click the button because it seems harmless enough.

You type in your friend’s email address and, pretty soon, he or she receives some marketing blurb that mentions your name.

On the surface, it seems very similar to Liking something on Facebook, retweeting something, or emailing a funny YouTube link around.

Technically, however, these click-a-button email services work very differently.

Known as friend get friend marketing, this technique works by generating personal-sounding email, and it sounds as though it ought to be very effective for exactly that reason.

But it is spam, however you hold it up to the light. You give my email address to X, and X takes this as permission to email me. And that’s an inference too far, at least for ACMA.

Indeed, as ACMA points out in an opinion piece written to coincide with the formal warning it issued to McDonald’s, inferring consent in this way probably isn’t going to have the net positive outcome you were hoping for:

One of the most common types of complaint we deal with comes from people who’ve received a marketing message from a business they've never heard of. They’re wondering how that business came to have their personal email address—and they're not happy! It often turns out that the complainant's email address was given to the marketer by a 'friend'.

This kind of practice is called friend get friend marketing — when your customers or website users promote your business to people they know.

[This sort of] marketing is a risky business. Not only does the Spam Act dictate that you must be sure that a recipient has given consent to receive your marketing messages, there's a strong chance you'll upset or annoy people with unwanted messages.

According to ACMA, “McDonald’s has since removed the ‘send to friends’ facility from the Happy Meal website, and has given assurances about its future e-marketing activities.”

In other words, the restaurant chain has stopped doing what it wasn’t supposed to be doing anyway, and says it won’t do it again.

In legalistic terms, at least, McDonald’s certainly got off lightly.

(There’s a small but separate backlash from some observers, lamenting what they see not only as spamming, but marketing to children to boot, since the ‘send to friends’ button was on the Happy Meal website – content specifically aimed at kids.)

Intriguingly, the ACMA article is attracting questions from electronic marketers, such as Rachel, who asks:

No one ever wants to send illegal email but the guidelines are so vague it is next to impossible to know if your process is valid or not. For example how would it be possible to gain consent from a friend of a friend without emailing them?

I don’t think Rachel intended that to be a rhetorical question, but it certainly sounds like one to me.

It isn’t possible to get consent from a friend of a friend without asking them, and one of the big ideas behind the Spam Act is to stop you emailing them to find out if they would like to receive emails from you!

So the bottom line is really simple: if you use email auto-generation tools, you must comply with the law.

And you might as well comply with common decency, because customers and prospects get cheesed off when you don’t.

By the way, it’s pretty easy to report spam (including SMS spam) to ACMA. For email, simply forward the message to the Spam Intelligence Database at report@submit.spam.acma.gov.au.

You may as well. There might not be a lot ACMA can do to reduce spam and improve behaviour, but without evidence they can’t do anything at all.