A Text Arrives. Oh, It’s Just an ‘Idol’ Ad.
The New York Times
January 14, 2009
Some AT&T Wireless customers have voted an emphatic no on a promotion for “American Idol” that popped up on their phones this week.
AT&T, a sponsor of the show, said it sent text messages to a “significant number” of its 75 million customers, urging them to tune in to the season premiere on Tuesday night.
But some recipients thought the message was a breach of cellphone etiquette, and gave it the kind of reaction that the “Idol” judge Simon Cowell might give an off-key crooner.
The online service Twitter had a steady stream of complaints. “AT&T just sent me a text message advertisement about ‘American Idol.’ Evil,” a Twitter user named Joe Brockmeier wrote on Tuesday. “The economic downturn definitely means a spam upswing.”
Another user named Nick Dawson wrote: “Seriously AT&T? Did you just text me twice during a meeting to tell me about ‘American Idol?’ Very professional!”
Mark Siegel, a spokesman for AT&T Wireless, said the message was meant as a friendly reminder. “We want people to watch the show and participate,” Mr. Siegel said. He added, “It makes perfect sense to use texting to tell people about a show built on texting.”
Because AT&T is a sponsor of “American Idol,” only its customers can use their cellphones to vote for their favorite singers via text message — so viewer participation means more revenue for AT&T.
In the advertisement, AT&T told recipients to “Get ready for American Idol” and pointed them to a company Web site promoting an “Idol”-related sweepstakes. It noted that recipients were not charged for the message, and that they could opt out of future advertisements by responding with the word “stop.”
Mr. Siegel said the message went to subscribers who had voted for “Idol” singers in the past, and other “heavy texters.” He said the message could not be classified as spam because it was free and because it allowed people to decline future missives.
“It’s clearly marked in the message what you need to do if you don’t want to participate,” he said. “It couldn’t be more open and transparent.”
Richard Cox, the chief information officer for Spamhaus, a nonprofit antispam organization based in Britain, countered: “It’s absolutely spam. It’s an unsolicited text message. People who received it didn’t ask for it. That’s the universal definition of spam.”
In general, sending unsolicited advertisements to phones has been more frowned upon — and far less common — than sending e-mail ads. That is in large part because recipients and senders of texts pay for the service either piecemeal or in bulk; in general, the more you send and receive, the more you pay.
Mr. Cox said that in Europe, AT&T could wind up in court for sending such missives because they would violate the law.
Claudia Bourne Farrell, a spokeswoman for the Federal Trade Commission, said the message had not appeared to violate the commission’s rules or the law. It would do so only if it cost recipients or was deceptive in some way, and did not allow recipients to turn off future messages.
Mr. Siegel of AT&T defended the use of the medium given that voting by text message had played a big role in “American Idol.”
“Text messaging is the perfect way for us to tell people about this wildly successful show and to watch it,” he said.