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 chain letters; annoying although they can be malicious and harmful if linked to sending money or a pyramid programme.
But there is a long history of fraudulent variants on the “multi-level marketing scheme“. One early US version involved Charles Ponzi, 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!”