June 25, 2008

Marketing Ideas and Fears Through Email: Pass Along Hoaxes and Urban Legends

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

I love email! I have been exchanging emails with one aunt in Toronto since 1995—long before most people I knew had email. But what drives me absolutely nuts are forwarded emails designed to scare us. You know the ones that offer safety tips and supposed health information? Very few are true or correct. So why do so many people forward those emails, propelling the crazy ideas even faster around the world? J0283757

Today, it seems that everybody uses the internet. The reality is that there are great disparities in computer use: Europe, North American and Australia/Oceania are the only areas of the world where internet usage has penetrated about half or more of the population. Within these countries who has computer access varies; for example in the U.S. those who are over age 65, have less education, or are African American are less likely to use the internet.

clip_image002Email is the number one internet activity in which we engage. On a typical day in 2004, 58 million people in the U.S. alone used email. Ever think about how many people receive the same loopy emails that crowd your inbox? In 2001, MIT graduate student Jonah Peretti, sent an email to 12 friends about his attempts to personalize his Nike shoes with the word “sweatshop”. The email made its way around the world and into international media; the story was profiled in large media outlets such as the Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, and NBC’s Today Show. In less than a three-month period, Peretti received 3,655 inquiries about his email! He got responses from every continent, and his email was translated into several languages. As Peretti writes: “You send an email to 10 friends, and each friend forwards the email to 10 of their friends. If this process continues just 6 steps the message will reach a million people. After 10 steps, the message would hypothetically reach more people than the total population of the earth.”

clip_image005Emails help us maintain social networks and build social capital. They allow us to stay in contact with ever growing networks. As people’s networks grow it becomes increasingly difficult for them to stay in contact, except with the use of emails. With email, people are able to stay in contact with more people, more easily. Forwards are one way that people do this. We can forward one note to many people, therefore staying in touch with that many people all at once.

I really like the terms that researchers have come up with to describe some of this: “viral marketing” and “viral consumers”. Business researchers examine the ways that consumers become marketers of products and services through the use of emails to spread—hence the term viral—information to friends and family. Avoiding these forwards feels a lot like I’m dodging a real virus! They are the marketing of ideas and fears through email. How does this happen? One aspect of this phenomenon is that we do not automatically delete forwarded emails from people we know, although we might do so very easily with notes from strangers. Emails from people we know are more persuasive than those from strangers. Many forwarded emails take a dash of truth and embellish the core with scary details, add names and places, along with an emotional aspect guaranteed to scare us. These urban legends and hoaxes often include details that are possible, but highly unlikely. The details make the claims appear legitimate. 

clip_image007Further, email is quick, and cheap or free. Those passing them along don’t have to write or type anything. They simply hit the forward button. The fact that those forwarding emails mostly don’t write anything means that the messages are passed on unchanged, unlike the “telephone game”. Sometimes there are versions of the same forward, so there is “tampering” at some point. However, because we don’t think of our friends or relatives as note originators, they may appear more authentic. It is not Aunt Mary who said this; it’s some really knowledgeable, albeit unknown, person. We know the immediate sources of these emails—the people who send them to us—and we assume that if someone we know sends a note, it must be okay. People may not realize that they can check the veracity of emails at websites such as Snopes and figure they are doing more good than harm passing on warnings. None of this is a recipe to discontinue the practice of passing along emails. Indeed, researchers found people pass along emails to be altruistic, and to share what seems to be good information regarding warnings about health and safety. There may also be a degree of impression management in passing along forwards; it is a chance to subtly convey to others what we know, and presumably, they do not. J0288908

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Comments

The latest e-mail hoax is the 'Change room rape' urban legend. According to an e-mail doing the rounds, nine women have been locked in shopping mall change rooms, robbed, raped and left naked. All the attacks supposedly took place in the Johannesburg area, with one at South Gate Mall, five at Sandton City and two each at Cresta and The Glenn. The hoax e-mail is puproprted to have been sent by an "Inspector Ian Roberts, SAPS Public Information Officer", and carries two typical pieces of urban legend advice:

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