There’s one born every minute…

Have you yet had the email about the “word-of-mouth advertising” scheme apparently being run by Marks & Spencer, in conjunction with Persimmon Homes?  The idea is that if you email enough of your friends and they email enough of their friends, you will benefit from vouchers in return.

A quick Internet search reveals this is a derivative of a hoax email that has been circulating for a decade.   The motivation for the originators is unclear – pointless spam, a campaign to clog up the email system of the target company, mindless online vandalism, the sheer fun of seeing your nonsense passed around, or an ironic statement about WOM marketing?

Interestingly, given concerns about online fraud and identity theft, people seem quite happy to circulate the email details of their contacts.  I regularly receive such emails claiming to be school projects, charity initiatives and so on – and always hit ‘delete’.  Generally these are simply ; annoying although they can be malicious and harmful if linked to sending money or a programme.

But there is a long history of fraudulent variants on the ““.  One early US version involved , who started a postal reply coupon scheme in Boston.  Early investors doubled their money in 90 days, generating exceptional word of mouth of how to “get rich quick“.  

Ponzi became a millionaire.  In 1920, he accrued $15 million, earning $250,000 a day – apparently he took $1 million in one 3 hour period – but with a life of extravagant luxury, and the nature of the fraud, he was actually in debt. 

Hiring a publicity agent, James McMasters, was part of Ponzi’s undoing.  Becoming suspicious, McMasters sold his story to the Boston Post.  After time in jail, deportation to his native Italy and other dubious deeds, Ponzi died a pauper in 1949.  His last newspaper interview claimed to have given the people of Boston a “wild ride”:

“Even if they never got anything for it, it was cheap at that price. Without malice aforethought I had given them the best show that was ever staged in their territory since the landing of the Pilgrims! It was easily worth fifteen million bucks to watch me put the thing over!”

An ironic twist in the tail is that an original Ponzi coupon could be worth a lot of money today.

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Heather Yaxley

Heather Yaxley is passionate about PR - teaching the CIPR qualifications, lecturing part-time at Bournemouth University and running the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA). I'm undertaking a PhD looking at Career Strategies in PR. I love sharing ideas and knowledge - connecting news and views by blogging on public relations and educational developments, especially relating to accelerated and active learning. I'm also a published author, qualified trainer and experienced consultant.

3 thoughts on “There’s one born every minute…”

  1. Very interesting…
    I got an email from, what claimed to be, redgoldfish jobs where I have been registered for email alerts. It was from a person who was basically offering people a job. The nature of the job isn’t important but the difference is I got an actual email from Redgoldfish themselves apologising for the hoax email and urging us to delete it etc.

    I wonder is, will Marks and Spencer or Persimmon Homes contact those people who’ve been targeted. I also wonder in the case of Redgoldfish, how did they know who we all were? Was it simply by contacting all of us set up for email alerts. Had their list of people like me fallen into the wrong hands? SCARY!

  2. Jill – I don’t think M&S or Persimmon could contact everyone as this seems to be circulating widely and wildly. I presume in the case of Redgoldfish this was a spam attack on their email database which is worrying. I think the best advice is to set up an alternative email for registering online, such as a hotmail.

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