Spam, and the art of negative marketing

I remember reader Ajay wondering how those godawful “Aberdeen Steak House” things around the West End have a business. I can’t find the discussion now, but I recall I told him that their ideal customer was someone for whom paying over the odds for a really bad dinner was an important part of their night out. That’s how they knew they were having a good time, I speculated.

Now here’s a Microsoft Research paper that explains this more elegantly. It examines why 419 spammers are so obvious and their production values are so crappy. Basically, the problem is false positives – it’s very important to the spammer to target suckers and to avoid wasting effort on non-suckers, and because the pool of potential marks is big relative to the pool of suckers, anything that improves the targeting is a disproportionate boost to the spammer’s payoff.

Even though the cost of sending out spam is minimal, this is only the first step in the process – once a mark responds, the attacker starts to incur costs. Non-suckers who respond will get wise at some point, leaving the attacker with a loss. Because suckers are rare, it’s hard to find a way to predict who might be a sucker. So the optimal strategy is to broadcast as widely as possible, but to tailor the message. The reason why they look like only a real sucker wouldn’t spot them is that they’re specifically designed to be easy to spot, so as to put off the non-suckers. An upshot of this is that the people who get their kicks by stringing 419 spammers along may actually be doing useful work.

I suspect this phenomenon – essentially the opposite of advertising, a sort of negative marketing – is much more common than we may think, and that it explains much else beyond terrible restaurants. Boris Johnson comes to mind, as do quite a few other politicians. In a low-turnout context, it ought to work, especially if you can put off the non-suckers from voting at all.


  1. Simon

    There’s a recent Freakanmics podcast on this subject. I suspect you would be Intetsted in the Van Hallen story.

  2. ajay

    First, can I say that I appreciate the long-running after-sales support that TYR offers to its commenters.
    Second, the topic came up twice on Unfogged, here
    and here

    indicating that it’s preying on the minds of pretty much the entire UK unfoggetariat.

    Third, I wonder if the connection could be made to that other TYR favourite, the Evil Clown Tendency? Pre-select your support base for a complete lack of seriousness or curiosity, and at least they won’t desert you when the news of your corruption (or whatever) breaks…

    • yorksranter

      I think you’re onto something regarding evil clowns. Also, that was a great thread, especially when we learned that LB thought a saveloy was a fish and someone else thought it was a cabbage.

    • ajay

      Kevin: that’s more or less been Michael O’Leary’s strategy for the last decade. Even to the point of lying about how much more terrible he’s going to make Ryanair service. Ryanair has put out lots of press releases saying, eg, “we’re going to have standing-room only flights, you won’t get a seat”, “we’re going to charge for access to the toilet” – no you aren’t. It is illegal. If you tried it, the CAA would ground you. And you know this – if you actually seriously suggested this, your head of ops would tell you so. There is no way that Ryanair could seriously be planning this, any more than TFL could be seriously planning to introduce steam-powered tube trains or Ferrari could be planning a car made of magnesium. The only explanation is that it’s a marketing lie to get press attention (in which it is successful) in order to spread the message “Ryanair treats its passengers like shit”.

        • ajay

          To be honest, my view is that he’s lying in order to get media exposure for the message “Ryanair is absolutely focussed on cutting costs by any means possible, and therefore you can be sure they’re the cheapest option”. What dooms Ryanair is people using Opodo and so on, because they discover that Ryanair isn’t always (or even mostly) the cheapest option. He has to get people to go to Ryanair first.

          • dsquared

            It’s both. Every time he says “Ryanair is so keen on cutting costs that it’s going to put babies in the hold”, he is relying on the known marketing effect that a lot of people will just take away “Ryanair is cutting costs blah blah blah”. But also, when he says “Ryanair is going to cut the fares to tuppence happenny and then charge you a quid to take a piss”, some people will think “sooooo … if I can hold it in for three hours, I come out ahead of the game!”.

            (also he’s kind of stopped doing it now).

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