Chances are if you've ever attended a fashion show and/or come in contact with a public relations company, or merely listed your contact information on your fashion-related website, you have been subjected to a flood of seemingly unrelated emails. During awards season, which kicked off not too long ago, it becomes increasingly obvious just how many unwanted emails are sent by public relations companies and received by unwitting fashion insiders. While not just annoying (largely due to their volume and frequency), these emails, whether they are article pitches or press releases informing you what designer so-and-so was wearing on the red carpet, many of these emails probably also fall into the category of being illegal. Here's why: U.S. law prohibits the sending of unsolicited commercial emails, and yet, it seems that many PR teams missed (and/or are completely ignoring) this memo.
Let's get a little bit of the background information out of the way first. The CAN-SPAM Act, which was passed in 2003 as a result of the rapid growth in unwanted commercial electronic mail messages, establishes requirements for commercial messages, gives recipients the right to opt out of receiving such emails, and spells out the penalties for violations (think: fines up to $16,000). As we can see, not all emails are subject to the provisions of the CAN-SPAM Act; only commercial ones are. So, what are considered "commercial" messages? Well, according to the law, these are messages with "the primary purpose of which is the commercial advertisement or promotion of a commercial product or service,” including emails that promote content on commercial websites. If you consider the content of most article pitches and PR-related emails, this seems to cast a very encompassing net and they all seem to fit in it rather neatly.
So, what does that mean for us? It means that the senders of such emails are required to do a number of things, including disclosing that such emails are for advertising purposes and making it easy for recipients to opt out of them. They must also permanently remove the e-mail addresses of the individuals who opt out within 10 business days. What it does not mean: It does not mean that we, as individuals, can sue. Just as the CAN-SPAM Act is not meant to cover isolated e-mail messages sent by individuals, it is not meant to create a cause of action for private individuals. The CAN-SPAM Act does, however, give certain parties, namely, the Federal Trade Commission and your internet service provider, standing to sue on your behalf (and they have filed suits of this nature in the past).
Having said all of this, you are not powerless. If you try to unsubscribe from an email list and your request is not honored, you can file a complaint with the FTC. It seems that this is our best bet in avoiding these pesky PR emails that we never signed up to receive in the first place.
The good news: awards season is almost over and PR companies are now on notice!