History of advertising: No 195: Canter and Siegel's Green Card spam

Internet marketing changed for ever on 12 April 1994. It was on that day that two Arizona-based lawyers, Laurence Canter and his wife, Martha Siegel, initiated the world's first mass commercial spam campaign.

Not only was their notorious "Green card" initiative cynically exploitative but marked the end of the internet’s innocent age and the time when so-called "netiquette" was out of the window.

Although the pair were not the first spammers, they were the first to use spamming commercially. In doing so they opened the floodgates for the billions of unrequested messages that clog internet systems every day.

Their spamming, posted to more than 5,500 message boards, was questionable to say the least. And it was to set the tone for so many others that followed.

It promoted a scheme to encourage people to enrol in the US government’s "green card lottery". This allocates a limited quantity of "green cards" to non-citizens allowing them to stay and work in the country.

Canter and Siegel offered to do the paperwork for a fee. They omitted to mention that those wanting to enter the lottery had only to send a postcard with their name and address on it to the US state department.

The spam provoked uproar. Their internet service provider, Internet Direct, received so many complaints that its mail servers crashed repeatedly for two days.

Nevertheless, Canter and Siegel claimed to have made between $100,000 and $200,000 as a result of an ad that cost them "only pennies".

Undeterred by the backlash they set up a company to create commercial spamming for other business while writing a book called How to Make a Fortune on the Information Super Highway.

Canter later claimed to have no regrets about unleashing spam. "Somebody would have done it if we hadn’t done it."

Things you need to know 

  • Although an estimated 97.4 billon spam emails were being sent daily in 2013, numbers are said to be dropping as cyber-thieves look for other ways of making money online.
  • One in six spam emails are believed to come from China, which tops the spam email rankings, followed by the US and South Korea.
  • In 1997 the Supreme Court of Tennessee disbarred Canter in part for alleged illegal advertising practices. He continues working in software development. Siegel died in 2000 aged 52.

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