An Analysis of the First Spam Email

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Would Gary Thuerk's first spam email make it through today's spam filters?

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Spam email was born in 1978. Gary Thuerk, a marketing manager at Digital Equipment Corp., was tasked with promoting the company's new T-series of VAX systems to a list of almost 400 interested parties. Rather than send a separate message to each individual, Thuerk had his assistant, Carl Gartley, write a single mass email. The result, according to Thuerk in an interview with Computer World in 2007, was the sales of $13 million or $14 million worth of DEC machines through the email campaign.

Screengrab of first spam message courtesy of Brad Templeton's site, itself a trove of spam history.

In celebration of DMN's email marketing, we have decided to reprint the original email in its original form, along with a line-by-line analysis of its text and if it would make it past the filters of today. The first spam email is not the greatest piece of email marketing, far from it, but we breakdown how it is the foundational framework for how all companies after created their spam email.


DIGITAL WILL BE GIVING A PRODUCT PRESENTATION OF THE NEWEST MEMBERS OF THE DECSYSTEM-20 FAMILY; THE DECSYSTEM-2020, 2020T, 2060, AND 2060T.

  • CAPITAL LETTERS! Thuerk starts the ad in all caps and does not undercase for the entire email. This would be a surefire way to get blocked by spam filtering today.


THE DECSYSTEM-20 FAMILY OF COMPUTERS HAS EVOLVED FROM THE TENEX OPERATING SYSTEM AND THE DECSYSTEM-10 <PDP-10> COMPUTER ARCHITECTURE.

  • For an unsolicited email or an unqualified list of recipients, the convoluted text in this sentence may not trigger spam filters, but it may cause the email users to place the email in their spam.


BOTH THE DECSYSTEM-2060T AND 2020T OFFER FULL ARPANET SUPPORT UNDER THE TOPS-20 OPERATING SYSTEM.

  • Now spam filters exist for several phrases involving the word “offer.” Many of the filters include “offer expires,” “offers coupon,” or “offers extra cash.”


THE DECSYSTEM-2060 IS AN UPWARD EXTENSION OF THE CURRENT DECSYSTEM 2040 AND 2050 FAMILY.

  • Thuerk's usage of “upward extension” is actually very clever way to avoid the “all new” or “brand new” spam filters of today.


THE DECSYSTEM-2020 IS A NEW LOW END MEMBER OF THE DECSYSTEM-20 FAMILY AND FULLY SOFTWARE COMPATIBLE WITH ALL OF THE OTHER DECSYSTEM-20 MODELS.

  • “New” is a tricky word in the spam filters. The word is associated with many combinations that will mark an email as spam. While the word is not a direct trigger, it could get caught in a filter nonetheless.


WE INVITE YOU TO COME SEE THE 2020 AND HEAR ABOUT THE DECSYSTEM-20 FAMILY AT THE TWO PRODUCT PRESENTATIONS WE WILL BE GIVING IN CALIFORNIA THIS MONTH.

  • Notice any product photos in this email? Thuerk did not include any photos of the two new products. It may not have been possible to include in the email then, but now any email with less than 500 words and no photo will trigger as spam.


THE LOCATIONS WILL BE:

TUESDAY, MAY 9, 1978 – 2 PM

HYATT HOUSE (NEAR THE L.A. AIRPORT)

LOS ANGELES, CA

THURSDAY, MAY 11, 1978 – 2 PM

DUNFEY'S ROYAL COACH

SAN MATEO, CA

(4 MILES SOUTH OF S.F. AIRPORT AT BAYSHORE, RT 101 AND RT 92)

  • Today, a specific address within an email may produce an attachment link. An email with a “cold contact” attached will get blocked as spam.


A 2020 WILL BE THERE FOR YOU TO VIEW. ALSO TERMINALS ON-LINE TO OTHER DECSYSTEM-20 SYSTEMS THROUGH THE ARPANET.  IF YOU ARE UNABLE TO ATTEND, PLEASE FEEL FREE TO CONTACT THE NEAREST DEC OFFICE FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE EXCITING DECSYSTEM-20 FAMILY.

  • “Free,” much like the word “new,” despite its meaning in this sentence, would possibly trigger a spam filter today. While associated with leading many trigger combinations, such as free credit, free car, free phone, the word itself has been known to set off spam filters.



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