CAN SPAM compliance information in images


A fellow delivery specialist sent me a question this morning.

What is your opinion on putting CAN SPAM compliance information (postal address, unsubscribe link, etc) in an image?

The short answer is this is something spammers do and something that legitimate mailers should never want to do.
The longer answer needs to look at why spammers do this, why legitimate marketers may think about doing this and what affect this has on the end user perception of mail.
Spammers do this because it means that they can still be nominally legally compliant if someone looks at their email but their physical address can’t be tagged by content filters. Using images is simply a way for them to avoid filters while also avoiding legal liability for violating CAN SPAM. In fact, in some of the cases where a company was taken to court for violating CAN SPAM (no physical postal address, no unsubscribe link) the company argued that the information was in an image that the recipient didn’t keep as evidence.
Because spammers use images for CAN SPAM information has become a sign that the sender is a spammer. It is in the same category as hashbusters, or rotating from lines or whois records hiding behind privacy filters. Spammers do these things because it defeats spam filters and gets their unwanted mail into ISPs a little better than if they don’t do these things. However, any third party looking at that spam, be it a delivery consultant or an abuse desk worker will immediately decide the complaint is valid and the sender is most likely spamming.
Why might a legitimate company want to use images for CAN SPAM compliance? There are bad reasons, like not providing information that can be used for filtering. There are some less bad reasons, though. It may be that they want their entire email to be images, with no room for text. From a design perspective, I can understand this. Companies want their email to be like their print marketing, branded and consistent. Unfortunately, doing this makes the email look like spam.
Unfortunately, using images for CAN SPAM compliance information is what spammers do. Even if a company has the best intentions and isn’t trying to get away with anything, using an image where plain text will do makes that mail look like spam. It makes the sender look like they have something to hide and removes any benefit of the doubt that an abuse desk worker might give the sender.

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  • “It may be that they want their entire email to be images, with no room for text.”
    I’d suggest that, no matter how important it is that they have everything in an image, they should still be including a plaintext part that includes their identifying information as text. Isn’t that why we have mime/multipart?

  • I’ve actually had discussions like this with lawyers in the past back in 2004 when the Act was fresh and on everyone’s mind. What i got from it is that the physical address needs to be in readable form no smaller then 8 point and in plain text, not image. Now where does it say that in the Act? It doesn’t but they would argue substance over form and when an image is blocked by an ISP and not the end user or when it is printed and images are not printed by default the individual will see no address thus “thinking” violation. So why do it? It looks bad anyway. Its not law that I know of but why subject yourself to interpolations of “google” lawyers like myself  Just put it in text form.
    -Richard King

  • At the end of the day, Most recipients have grown accustomed to seeing an opt-out/unsubscribe link in plain text as a footer below the “creative” used in a commercial email. If there is no benefit aside from an arguable enhancement to design, why risk it?! We, as ethical marketers should always be focused on the end user, customer experience. Make it easy for them, because if they do not want your offer anyway, why waste your time beating down their door? Focus on what matters…identifying the right lead sources (Publishers, Affiliate Networks, Agencies, etc) and simply automate the opt-out process through a 3rd party, managed email compliance solution.
    Feel free to visit “resources” page for help in this arena!

  • Personally, I am at the end of my rope with this “CAN SPAM COMPLIANT” decorative box. I am currently receiving 5 to 7 of these daily. This creativity, so to speak, is unprofessional and sends a jolt of fear through me, especially when I have just received notification from my legitimate credit reporting company that my report is ready, and the next five emails are Can Spam from 360 Credit Score, Transunion, etc. The worst use of C S was when they used portions of the official Marlboro website as their “Opt Out” box. That should not be legal.

By laura

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