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Tracey E.Schelmetic

[April 30, 2003]

Dot Commentary

By Tracey E. Schelmetic
Senior Managing Editor, CUSTOMER [email protected] Solutions™

The Psychology Of Spam

Did you hear about the results of the new study conducted by the Federal Trade Commission? The shocking statistics were published on MSNBC today. Brace yourselves…but it turns out that most spammers lie to consumers. I know…it's hard to accept, but not everyone who peddles body-part enlarging magic fairy dust and no-interest mortgages is being 100 percent upfront with you. Apparently, you CAN'T grow large naughty bits just from drinking a delicious, high-protein shake every day for a week, hot co-eds are really NOT dying to meet you, you actually have to move your butt off the couch to lose weight (to think…all that time I've been wasting on my couch waiting to lose 10 pounds!), and you can't make enough money to buy a Park Avenue penthouse just from stuffing envelopes part time in your living room.

There's got to be a poetic justice-inspired punishment waiting for those who take advantage of their fellow human beings' weaknesses. Ever notice that 90 percent of spam messages are about baldness, libido, weight problems, solving money troubles, meeting romantic partners or miracle health cures? Ever wonder why few of the mass spam messages that come into your inbox try to sell you books of poetry, a better garage door opener or a way to help make you better read? All the messages I get address three of the most basic needs levels on Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Need chart (did anyone else get that chart shown to them ad nauseum in college, or was it just me?)

The first, base level of the Hierarchy of Need pyramid is bodily needs (food, drink, digestive processes, sex and beer). The second is security needs…personal safety. These two basic levels comprise the "Can I eat it, and if not, can it eat me?" approach that my cats demonstrate so admirably when I bring anything new into my apartment. Beyond that are social needs…having family, friends, significant others and someone to give you a foot massage when you've had a rotten day. After that is the ego level…appreciation for your skills and efforts, admiration for your rapier-like wit or your ability to successfully navigate Italian public transportation. Finally, on top, we've got self-actualization, which is presumably different for everyone, and for brevity purposes, I'll just call it "enlightenment," or discovering what the meaning of life is.

I'm not going to say that spammers are smart, but they can be savvy and know the scent of blood in the water when they smell it. They know, for instance, that a very overweight person (of which there are an increasing amount in this country, according to the CDC) will have tried many remedies to lose weight, and may now be desperate enough to try non-traditional, untried (and ultimately ineffective) mystery methods. They know that people with very ill loved ones would do almost anything, or try almost anything, to help heal them. They know that some people whose love lives are lackluster may also suffer from body image problems, which presents spammers with a double opportunity to mislead people into trying to reduce/enlarge the size of their parts, at the same time promising them that the service being peddled will lead the spam recipient into meeting Mr. or Ms. Right. They also, apparently, are not beyond tailoring their messages to current events. Remember all the people trying to peddle the antibiotic Cipro online during the anthrax scare of October 2001? You don't get those messages now, presumably because we're not scared of anthrax anymore and therefore won't pull out our credit cards in a fit of self-preservation hysteria.

As much as I find them repulsive, the people who engage in cyberbegging (setting up a Web site and asking for donations to help pay down credit card debt resulting from a five-year-long Armani suit- and Manolo Blahnik shoe-shopping binge, for example) are at least honest about their activities. More curious than cyberbeggers, I find, are the people who actually send money to these boneheads, though I must admit, it would be nice if strangers would buy me a Cuisinart for no other reason than the demonstration of my possession of basic HTML skills and willingness to pay a small monthly fee to a hosting company. Maybe you have to be under 22 and blonde for this method to work. Somehow, I suspect that if someone looking like my mechanic, Vinny, were to create such a Web site for the purpose of financing an additional repair bay for the garage, the donations wouldn't exactly fly in.

Speaking of boneheads, this leads me back (admittedly circuitously) to my original point, which is that someone is buying this stuff, even if it's only one person in a million. Spam costs practically nothing to lob into the Internet, so making just a couple of $49.95 sales of Magic Herbal Weight Loss Pixie Dust (money back guarantee…just e-mail your refund request to [email protected]) nets you a profit. I'm really starting to think that the only people buying these things are the Attorneys General of all 50 states, so they can evaluate whether to pursue litigation against the peddlers in court, and those 50 orders are enough to keep the spammers cranking.

In the meantime, let's all do our part to remove the spammers' marketplace. If you hear a friend say he'd like to lose 10 pounds and meet an attractive woman, hand him a banana and introduce him to your sister. Tell the Baby Boomers the only way they can successfully not get bags under their eyes as they age is to spend the rest of their lives upside-down in gravity boots, and as for those of your friends who are convinced it's the sizes of their parts that make them desirable, encourage them to increase their IQ first and then decide whether the parts need adjustment later.

The author may be contacted at [email protected].

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