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Permission: it may not be what you think it is

I’ve talked frequently about permission on this blog, and mentioned over and over again that senders should correctly set expectations at the time they collect permission. Permission isn’t permission if the recipient doesn’t know what they’re agreeing to receive.

This is graphically demonstrated in a recent lawsuit filed against Toyota for a marketing program. Toyota sent a series of emails to recipients wherein a fictitious man claimed to be on the run from the law and was coming to hide from the law at the recipient’s home.

Toyota’s official response to the lawsuit is the relevant part to other email marketers. They insist the plaintiff opted in to this marketing campaign. The view of the plaintiff and her attorney is a little different.

Toyota’s marketers used the Internet to find people who wanted to set up friends to be “punked,” and [the plaintiff] was set up by a friend of hers, [her lawyer] said.

This is something I can easily believe. A lot of marketers ask for contact information of friends in order to market to those friends. But there isn’t a whole lot of permission involved.

Toyota claims that the plaintiff, Ms. Duick, opted in when she was sent a personality test by a friend.

Tepper, Duick’s attorney, said he discussed the campaign with Toyota’s attorneys earlier this year, and they said the “opting in” Harp referred to was done when Duick’s friend e-mailed her a “personality test” that contained a link to an “indecipherable” written statement that Toyota used as a form of consent from Duick.
Tepper, said that during those legal negotiations, Toyota’s lawyers claimed Duick signed the written legal agreement, which they said amounts to “informed written consent.”

I have to wonder about the written legal agreement that would inform someone she was agreeing to receive email from a fictitious fugitive. It strikes me that any legal agreement that spelled out what she was agreeing to would have revealed the hoax. I don’t think she envisioned she was giving the same permission that Toyota thought they were collecting.

This is actually a big problem in email marketing. A lot of senders claim they have permission from recipients but what the recipient thought they were agreeing to receive is completely different. And just because a sender has permission for one type of email doesn’t mean they can start sending a completely different type of mail.

In this case, the mismatch between sender and recipient expectations didn’t just result in a poor sending reputation and delivery problems. It also resulted in a lawsuit against the sender. Senders should be more careful with permission and strive to inform recipients about what they’re opting in to receive.
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