Is Spam An Ethical Red Flag?


By Linda Fisher Thornton

Consumers expect companies to respect boundaries. That allows them to live happy and meaningful lives without intrusion from companies that want them to “buy right now.”

Spam Violates Ethical Boundaries

When people get spam mail, email or blog comments, do they rush to click on the websites or buy the items advertised? Probably not. The reasons are a complex mix of changing expectations and higher ethical standards for business:

  • A barrage of unwanted information violates the boundary of respect for people’s time and space.
  • Sustainability is important, and fat envelopes with unwanted offers use up natural resources. 
  • Spam signifies that the organization is willing to do whatever it takes to get your business, making savvy consumers wonder “What else are they doing that isn’t good?”

Spam senders conveniently ignore information and privacy boundaries  – they do not honor people’s right to seek out the information they want, instead pushing the information they want people to haveThe privacy boundary is also a major issue in the discussion about technology-enabled smart marketing based on what people have viewed in the past.

Spam Creates a False Sense of Urgency

The spam that I see is generally for optional luxury goods. With these goods, the sender is trying to create a need and not fulfill one. Lauren Bloom describes how that can make us feel in The Ethics of Spam“There’s something sadly dehumanizing about all that in-your-face advertising.  If I’m really a valued customer, why are you pushing me to buy things I don’t want or need?”

Responsible Selling is Respectful

I realized when thinking about this problem, that I’ve never seen spam from a human rights organization. Why not? Perhaps companies that work based on positive ethical values care about their reputations, and realize that spam is not responsible.  Maybe they realize that people are less likely to buy from spammers. Responsible selling requires a respectful approach. As ethical expectations have increased, so have consumer reactions and legal penalties. 

How does spam inform us? Perhaps it is a red flag – not telling us to “purchase this product right now” but telling us that a company has questionable ethics.

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1 comment

  1. Thank you! Companies that automatically subscribe me to their mailing list without consent get not just an unsubscribe, but marked as spam, blacklisted locally in my email client, and sent an email informing them that I do not accept or appreciate unsolicited marketing email and will no longer purchase anything from their company. And I don’t. More than once, I have received responses back that they do not believe their unsolicited ads count as spam because they meet the (surprisingly lax) US laws for “acceptable” spam. But I can think of plenty of things that are immoral but still legal, and I think these marketers know full well that if I really wanted to be on their marketing list, I would have signed up for it. Besides that, I’m not in the US, and I find the idea that US law should inform global ethics and etiquette not just a non-sequitur but a bit offensive. Should I also be happy to accept Nigerian prince type emails just because it was legal to send it in its country of origin? Many countries have already passed laws requiring double opt-in so I hope this trend will continue and I stop getting so much junk from “legitimate” companies.


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