NEW MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON UNSOLICITED E-MAIL - E-mail retains its appeal as a cheap-and-cheerful medium

New codes on spam e-mail do not mean the end of the medium.

So farewell then, spam. Thank heavens. In the future, we'll spend a lot less time each morning deleting dreary junk from our inboxes. Or so you'd believe if you read some of the press coverage last week of the new Advertising Standards Authority code on unsolicited e-mails - because there was much talk of the ASA cracking down or outlawing the digital equivalent of junk mail.

Well, yes, perhaps. It was touching, arguably, to see so much faith being expressed in the powers of the ASA - though, in truth, most of the coverage got round to mentioning somewhere along the way that the ASA doesn't really have the power to clamp down on anything much, and its writ doesn't exactly run very far where junk e-mail is concerned.

It did have to show willing, obviously, because European Union directives on distance selling insist that consumers must have "opted-in" (in other words, have given their express consent) before they can be sent personally addressed commercial messages. Our codes are now in line with Brussels codes. Which is nice.

But arguably rather pointless. As the ASA admits, its codes are observed (or not) on a self-regulatory basis; and in any event a large proportion of junk e-mail is from cowboy companies based well beyond these shores - and, indeed, the long arm of the ASA. It is estimated that at least 85 per cent of spam received in the UK originates outside the EU. And it's a growing problem too if the evidence from the US is to be believed - AOL's spamguard filter software now detects upwards of a billion unsolicited e-mails every day and AOL accounts for only a fraction of the total US market.

So does the industry have a bigger problem with spam than it has been prepared to acknowledge? Will the ASA move be effective in any real way?

And if not, should mainstream advertisers take that as a cue to leave e-mail marketing - in all its legitimate guises - well alone?

John Owen, a director of Starcom Motive and the chairman of the IPA's digital marketing group, agrees that spam, and the public debate about it, has the potential to devalue the medium.

"But the counter argument is that people genuinely do trust brands and they do not treat (a piece of communication) from a trusted brand in the same way that they would a non-branded communication. So I'm a little sceptical as to the macro effect of this. I would argue that it's not the problem that it is sometimes made out to be. It's not a reason for blue-chip advertisers to abandon it. As long as we are doing it the right way, we can continue," he adds.

Lars Becker, the chief executive of the mobile marketing specialist flytxt, agrees with Owen. There's far more hype than reality where spam is concerned and hardly anyone is genuinely snowed under by unwanted e-mails. Unsolicited text messaging is even rarer.

But Becker does concede there have been some problems recently with scams in which people are texted asking them to call a particular number - which turns out to be an obscenely expensive premium rate line. But that's technically not spam as such. "It's true that this does make people concerned about the medium but I hope that regulations don't hurt the (legitimate) industry while not really getting at the true problem. It's always difficult to legislate against people whose whole existence is about circumventing the regulations."

On the other hand, Becker argues, it is important to raise these issues in the advertising industry. It makes it harder for blue-chip companies to flirt with dodgy practices and then plead ignorance when they're caught out.

Robert Dirskovski, the head of interactive media at the Direct Marketing Association, says that it's important to take a balanced view here: "The (EU) Directive in no way says: 'Thou shalt not send unsolicited e-mail.' We certainly wouldn't want to pour cold water on e-mail. It is a mechanism that is entirely made for companies to enter the market at low cost.

"To say no to e-mail would hinder the growth of e-commerce, especially for smaller, entrepreneurial companies - and those are the companies, more than the established high-street companies, that are going to provide increased consumer choice. So the message is: do it as long as you do it right."

Owen would tend to agree with Dirskowski. He concludes: "In an industry where you have to innovate or be left behind, there will always be an element of trial and error and agencies must use their own judgment. You have to be impactful but you must also respect the recipient. That's the key. As long as you do that, you should be all right."