Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Deceitful Spammer or Marketing Genius?

By Jessica Silliman

Rachel Bailey was quickly hired out of Santa Clara University during the dot-com boom to a company of 100 employees that ran an innovative social networking website in Silicon Valley. She was immediately put in charge of email communication to customers-both existing and potential.

The Internet was quite new to everyone and online communication (via email) had little corporate regulation or set social protocol. Privacy policies were yet to be established. With thousands of individuals discovering the Internet everyday, business was booming for the small Silicon Valley firm.

Rachel handled all online contact with existing users and was asked to market to these existing online community members via email. But she struggled with finding a balance of the right amount of marketing. With Internet competition growing everyday within the social networking websites, these users had plenty of alternatives. And flooding their email inboxes, she thought, wasn't the best way to attract them.

Unfortunately, Rachel's boss had a different approach. The Vice President of Marketing wanted results-he wanted existing customers to upgrade their networking packages and follow through on advertisements. He told Rachel to be as aggressive as possible with her email campaigns. But at the same time, Rachel spoke with coworkers who didn't want to work for a company known for its email spam. They prided themselves on working at an organization that respected its users and didn't abuse the ease of email communication-even within the competitive market.

Rachel found subtle alternatives to the mass emails. She developed links on the company website to advertisements, but she wasn' t getting the results her boss demanded.

One day when Rachel arrived at the office, her boss said he had a brilliant idea. He said that everybody knew someone named Cindy Anderson, so they could send emails to their users from that name to trick them into opening the email, which would display a link to their website.

Rachel was incensed with her boss's idea. "A lot of people are very casual with the truth," she said.

Rachel felt very uncomfortable with the thought of implementing what she considered to be her boss's deceptive idea.

"People trust you with their email addresses," said Rachel. "You have to be responsible and not take advantage of that access."

She worried that existing customers would begin to resent the company and unsubscribe. But she also had a commitment to drawing in as many new customers as she could-and her more subtle tactics weren't working.

Rachel made the decision to stand up to her boss. The following week she told him that his idea was deceitful and would cause customers to lose trust and faith in the company. In the end, it wouldn't be a financially viable solution to their problem.

Rachel proved to be convincing. Her boss took her advice and began to realize that it was a bad idea.

"In the end, we had happy customers and our company gained more value in the highly competitive market," said Rachel.

Discussion Questions:

  • Describe the ethical dilemma or dilemmas Rachel faced.
  • Do you think Rachel's boss' "Cindy Anderson" strategy is ethically acceptable? Why or why not?
  • What is Rachel's obligation to her customers and what are Rachel 's obligations to the company?
  • What do you think is the most important factor in how Rachel responded to the situation: That she thought the proposed "Cindy Anderson" strategy was deceitful or that she thought the strategy would cost the company customers?

Jessica Silliman was a 2006-07 Hackworth Fellow at The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

June 2007


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