How SPAM became spam

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How could there be a downside to having one of your marquee brands on the lips of every business computer user every business day? If the word is Spam and you’re Hormel Foods, you take the good with the bad.

Hormel, named our Processor of the Year in our December 2008 issue, created Spam [they prefer it in all capital letters] in 1937. The company probably was flattered when the BBC television comedy series “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” used it in a 1970 sketch.

Set in a restaurant where everything on the menu contains Spam, the skit has the waiter repeating the word obnoxiously and then a hidden chorus sings it incessantly: “Spam, Spam, Spam Spam ... lovely Spam, wonderful Spam.” It was repetitious and annoying. But it’s not so flattering when applied to a hundred or so worthless e-mails every day.

Wikipedia says the term “spam” was used in the 1980s by and to describe abusive users of electronic bulletin boards and multi-user domains who would repeat “SPAM” a huge number of times to scroll other users’ text off the screen. There is a belief they intentionally were mimicking the repetitious and annoying tone of the Monty Python sketch. “Sending an irritating, large, meaningless block of text in this way was called spamming,” says Wikipedia.

“It later came to be used on Usenet to mean excessive multiple posting -- the repeated posting of the same message. … The first usage of this sense was by Joel Furr in the aftermath of the ARMM  [Automated Retroactive Minimal Moderation program] incident of March 31, 1993, in which a piece of experimental software released dozens of recursive messages onto the news.admin.policy newsgroup,” says Wikipedia. The word was also attributed to the flood of “Make Money Fast” messages that clogged many newsgroups during the 1990s.

In 1998, the New Oxford Dictionary of English, which had previously only defined “spam” as the Hormel food product, added a second definition: “Irrelevant or inappropriate messages sent on the Internet to a large number of newsgroups or users.”

Hormel’s take: “We do not object to use of this slang term to describe UCE [unsolicited commercial e-mail], although we do object to the use of the word ‘spam’ as a trademark and to the use of our product image in association with that term. Also, if the term is to be used, it should be used in all lower-case letters to distinguish it from our trademark SPAM, which should be used with all uppercase letters,” the company says on the Spam.com web site.

“This slang term, which generically describes UCE, does not affect the strength of our trademark SPAM,” the Hormel statement continues. “In a Federal District Court case involving the famous trademark Star Wars owned by Lucasfilm Ltd., the court ruled that the slang term used to refer to the Strategic Defense Initiative did not weaken the trademark and the court refused to stop its use as a slang term. Other examples of famous trademarks having a different slang meaning include Mickey Mouse to describe something as unsophisticated and Cadillac to denote something as being high quality. It is only when someone attempts to trademark the word ‘spam’ that we object to such use, in order to protect our rights in our famous trademark SPAM. We coined this term in 1937 and it has become a famous trademark. Thus, we don’t appreciate it when someone else tries to make money on the goodwill that we created in our trademark or product image, or takes away from the unique and distinctive nature of our famous trademark SPAM.”

Spamming remains economically viable because advertisers have no operating costs beyond the management of their mailing lists, and it is difficult to hold senders accountable for their mass mailings, says Wikipedia. Because the barrier to entry is so low, spammers are numerous, and the volume of unsolicited mail has become very high. The costs, such as lost productivity and fraud, are borne by the public and by Internet service providers, which have been forced to add extra capacity to cope with the deluge.

Spamming is widely reviled, and has been the subject of legislation in many jurisdictions.

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