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Are the new Gmail ads email?

I’ve seen lots of opinions over the last few weeks about whether or not the new ads in the Gmail promotions tab are email or not.

Google is using its latest inbox redesign to stick ads in the holiest of places: Right inside your Gmail inbox. Under the promotions tab — one of three sections in the new tabbed version of Gmail — Google has started sticking ads disguised as emails, as first noticed by Venture Beat’s Ricardo Bilton. See, it’s just right there in the inbox, looking like a regular e-mail. But, it’s an ad: [screenshot elided]
The paid-message opens up like a regular e-mail. Only once inside the message, does it give the option to opt-out of that particular ad. Essentially, it’s Google approved junk-mail — like we need more of that. Atlantic Wire says email

[T]hey’re web-based advertisements formatted and presented in such a way as to closely resemble actual e-mail messages, but are otherwise very much like the ones Gmail users are accustomed to seeing to the right and above the inbox. There’s even some evidence to suggest that the new ads employ the same engine as the ordinary Gmail display ads to select and present those that Google deems a viewer is most likely to click. EmailSkinny says not email

It’s visible in your inbox, with a sender and subject line like an email. You can forward it to others as an email, just like an email. You can delete it, just like an email. New ones will arrive, just like email.
The UI for these advertising messages is slightly different from other gmail messages – but the UI for normal email marketers using microformats (https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/146897?hl=en) is also different at gmail.
That it wasn’t delivered via SMTP isn’t really relevant – historically no email was delivered via SMTP, and even today there’s a lot of email that is delivered over non-SMTP protocols. Steve says email

It doesn’t show up in your inbox by IMAP or Pop, unlike email.
Is not sent by SMTP, unlike email.
A rose by any other name … is still an ad in the chrome.
Neil says not email

Gmail’s new layout doesn’t just keep your inbox organized, it also gives Google the perfect opportunity to send you unsolicited email ads.
Engadget says email

Personally, I was in the “not email, it doesn’t go over SMTP” camp for a while. I even made a rather public statement about that during a conversation about whether or not these were subject to the regulations of CAN SPAM. But, Steve is correct in pointing out that not all email goes over SMTP. In fact, if I mail him that mail doesn’t go over SMTP. I send it from my mail client, it shows up in his inbox, and never does it touch SMTP. Some Gmail to Gmail mail doesn’t touch SMTP either. Clearly SMTP is not a requirement for email.
Most email/not email discussions in the email marketing sphere have focused on the opt-out provision in CAN SPAM and whether or not the ads need to meet that standard. However, the ads do not contain a physical postal address. If Gmail thought they were emails, they would require advertisers to comply with CAN SPAM. So, Gmail doesn’t think they’re email.
Looking through press about the ads, mostly written by non email reporters, the consensus seems to be they are emails. But I’ve not seen any of the non-email press mention the legal implications. Gmail is not treating these like emails and thus are not complying with any of the 3 major provisions of CAN SPAM: there are no headers, there is no postal address, there is no opt-out.
What do you think about the ads? Does Gmail need to comply with CAN SPAM?

9 comments

  1. John L says

    If you’re wondering about CAN SPAM compliance, how about using the definition of Electronic Mail Message in CAN SPAM? It’s Sec (3)(6).

  2. Huey says

    …always with the facts, Moriarty.
    Why can’t you just say something righteous and hopeful for a change?

  3. Andrew B. says

    Per 15 USC 7702 sec.(3)(6), “[t]he term ‘electronic mail message’ means a message sent to a unique electronic mail address.” Pretty vague definition.
    Are the ads sent to an actual e-mail address, or just to unique Gmail users that also happen to have unique addresses but are identified for the ads by some proprietary method? Are the messages “sent”, or are they just served via HTTP like the other display ads?

    1. laura says

      Gmail is targeting ads to the address based on the data they have about that address. Is the fact that the ad is sent to that address via HTTP relevant?

  4. Byron Lunz says

    I don’t see any difference between how Gmail displayed ads before and how they display ads now, except they’ve been moved from the right side of the screen to inline with the messages. Yes, they’re now inline in the Inbox area, which makes them LOOK like email messages, but they are not. Actually pretty clever IMO. I simply turned off the tabs and I’m not seeing inline ads in my Inbox.

  5. David R. says

    I’m not a webmail user. I hadn’t looked at the new Gmail interface, until others pointed at it, as part of this and similar discussions.
    I looked at the “Promotions” tab, with its otherwise unnoticed message. As there’s no option out of the promotional messages, landing in this pseudo-mailbox, I removed the tab. I’ve seen no further activity.

  6. Paul says

    I really don’t see how these messages can be considered spam. They are clearly not emails, because they only show on the web interface, not via IMAP or POP. The page has other ads, and I’m sure the Ts and Cs for gmail mean you consent to this. It’s free and ad-funded, everyone knows this, right?
    Google has always targeted ads. Sidebar ads I see relate to the messages in my inbox. Again, this is all in the Ts and Cs. The only issue with these messages is they’re made to look a bit like emails, but aren’t.
    From a personal standpoint, I fail to see the logic of what google is doing, as it seems to me people would be less likely to click on ads that look like spam than ads which look like legit ads. And they’re more likely to be aggrieved about them. I suspect it will be dropped in due course for these reasons, rather than any legal issue.

  7. Bill Cole says

    NOT EMAIL!
    You only see them if you go to the website and actively choose to use the new Inbox format there. I don’t have a specimen, but from what others have said I suspect they are are not RFC822-compliant and I know they don’t appear in the IMAP view of a GMail account. They are web artifacts accessible only on the website.
    More importantly, ads in the web UI, in this case under the Promotions tab, are a direct consequence of an affirmative business agreement between Google and their chattel^W eyeball herd ^W^W users. All GMail users have explicitly agreed to have ads presented to them in the GMail website. Users who want a different deal can choose to get email otherwise.

  8. Ramon Bishop says

    does the receiver of these paid emails get any charge to them if opened? and although they say you can unsubscribe by using the the section below, there is no means to do so.

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