A man emerges from a toilet stall in a fancy hotel restroom. He heads to the sink, washes his hands -- and the towel boy immediately hands him a dollar. He climbs into an elevator and blows his nose; a woman standing beside him nonchalantly hands him a dollar.
Wouldn't it be great if you could get paid for something you already do? This is the message of a TV ad for Epidemic.com, a new Internet start-up whose name is apparently a play on viral marketing. Of course, the subtext of the spot, one of the flood of forgettable dot-com ads during the Super Bowl on Sunday, was that Epidemic will pay you to do something you already do.
What Epidemic didn't specify, however, was just which task it would pay you for (it's not using the toilet or blowing your nose, though that shouldn't surprise you.) Epidemic wants to pay you for sending e-mail -- but only if you agree to include graphical ads in your e-mail. Yes, if you agree to configure your e-mail to include a number of animated "epiAds," you can attempt to profit off your friends.
The way it works is this: You download a little program called epiNabler, a plug-in application that interacts with your e-mail software (such as Outlook, Eudora or Hotmail). Whenever you send an e-mail from this point on, your messages will include a number of graphical ads down the side. If the recipients of your e-mail click on those ads and continue through and buy something, you get a small percentage of the sale (the site doesn't reveal just how much of a commission you'll be making.) Or you can choose to get the profits donated to charity.
The idea, while simple, is incredibly insidious. As if your inbox weren't already stuffed with enough spam, commercial solicitations and e-mail newsletters stuffed with text ads, now your friends get to send you huge banner-type ads, too? The premise is terrifying: Your cousin Sally, who only e-mails you once a year, starts e-mailing you daily, hoping to get a commission out of some purchase you make. The mailing lists you belong to may suddenly become rife with members who have signed up for the service. Complete strangers may spam you in hopes that you'll click and buy.
Epidemic, on its Web site, markets the service as a way to "be the first to tell your friends about the latest brands and coolest trends! Get your friends and family excited about using the Internet!" But really, it's a new form of spam and unwanted direct-mail marketing. And there's no opt-in option: If your friends choose to join, you're stuck getting those ads whether you like it or not.
My only hope is that the millions of dollars that the company spent on that silly and oblique Super Bowl ad will empty the company's coffers and put them out of business. If Epidemic takes off, I dread what the future -- and my in box -- may hold.