OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

In the classic children's book Green Eggs and Ham, Dr Seuss presented a persistent character named Sam-I-Am. Decades later, the American consumer is furious about the persistence of an advertising gimmick that has turned everyone into Spam-I-Am.

In this instance, spam of course is not the Hormel brand of spiced mystery meat, er, ham, but rather the unwanted mass e-mail ads that are becoming as continuously annoying to computer users as telemarketing calls have become to phone users and junk faxes to office workers. A long time ago, say, around 2000, it was thought that selling goods and services via e-mail would be the "killer app" for online marketing, enabling advertisers to efficiently and effectively reach carefully targeted groups of shoppers.

But just as the internet bubble burst, so too has any hope of preserving e-mail marketing for legitimate purposes. The statistics detailing the plague are daunting: spam has tripled in volume in the last year, by one estimate, taking a 38 per cent market share of all e-mail traffic.

Indeed, it's not too far-fetched to update The Hucksters, the novel and movie of the 40s that mocked Madison Avenue, by substituting a spammer who deluges innocent computer owners with awful e-mail for Evan Llewellyn Evans, the unctuous peddler who hawked his Beautee soap brand by foisting obnoxious singing commercials on radio listeners.

Clearly, the exploitation by spammers, who bombard mailboxes with all manner of spurious, unsolicited and sketchy pitches, is souring consumers not only on e-mail ads in particular but advertising in general.

That was demonstrated recently when The New York Times published an editorial attacking junk e-mail. It prompted a pained letter from the Direct Marketing Association, agreeing that the excesses of the few shady hard-sellers in cyberspace are threatening to ruin the reputations of law-abiding companies.

The DMA requires members to obey strict guidelines when sending e-mail ads. Among them are including an "opt-out" address that consumers may contact to be removed from e-mailing lists and disclosing the sender's actual identity. In other words, you can't bill yourself as "one of the former advisers on arms control and acquisition to the current president of Sierra Leone" or as the purveyor of "amazing salve for any skin problem" that comes "from the heart of Amish country".

But the problem lies not with reputable marketers but with the sleazemeisters, many of them based abroad. Another difficulty: there's no federal law against junk e-mail, just a patchwork of regulations passed by only half the states.

Uncle Sam needs to intervene, clear heads agree, perhaps adopting limits such as those prevailing in California, which decree that subject headings be labelled with the abbreviation "ADV" for "advertisement". That gives filtering software a chance to block unwanted spam - a redundant phrase if there ever was one.

Until then, frustrated consumers must content themselves with virtual revenge against the flood of spam for penis enlargers, mortgage loans, porno ("Free teen de-virginisation clip!") and get-rich-quick schemes, one even audacious enough to offer an e-mail marketing list with three million names for $99. There's a game on an anti-spam website (www.tortureaspammer.com) where miscreants can be subjected to make-believe punishments such as being boiled in oil and, appropriately enough, buried under an avalanche of spam.

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