Spam e-mail on health and pharmaceutical topics are received by over 80% of individuals.1 In a 2007 survey, the Pew Internet and American Life Project reported that most e-mail users are bothered by spam with 18% believing that it is a big problem and 51% believing that it is annoying.2 Another study reported that 81% of individuals “strongly dislike” spam and 14% simply just “dislike” spam.3
Spam e-mails are sent with the intent for recipients to open them and to be interested in the message content of that spam e-mail. Purchases from spam e-mail solicitations range from as low as 4% to as high as 66% depending upon the study.1–5 Older retirement-age individuals are more likely to purchase from solicitations in spam e-mail than college-age young adults.3
Almost one-third of spam e-mail consists of health-related messages.6 Spam e-mail marketing of health products appeals to the perceived health needs of individuals. Weight loss topics are of great importance to young adults and spam e-mails about weight loss are commonly sent to young adults. There are also psychological concerns related to dissatisfaction with one's weight that can include low self-esteem7 and increased perceived stress.8,9 These psychological concerns may make young adults susceptible to buy products from spam e-mail weight loss solicitations.
To our knowledge, we are the first to study young adult responses to spam e-mail selling weight loss products. We have four hypotheses. First, the presence of weight problems among young adults is associated with receiving spam e-mail about weight loss topics at greater levels than those without weight problems. Spam is not always randomly sent to all individuals with an e-mail address. Individuals with weight problems may have previously provided their e-mail address when they requested information or purchased weight loss products from internet vendors. These e-mail addresses may be used by this particular company or sold to other companies who now send spam e-mail to these individuals. Individuals who do not have weight problems are not as likely to have provided their e-mail address to internet vendors selling weight loss products. Second, the presence of weight problems among young adults is associated with opening spam e-mail about weight loss topics at greater levels than those without weight problems due to greater interest in weight loss. Third, the presence of weight problems among young adults is associated with buying products from spam e-mail about weight loss topics at greater levels than those without weight problems due to greater interest in weight loss. Fourth, the psychological concerns of low self-esteem and increased perceived stress, which are often associated with being overweight, is associated with the receiving of, opening of, and buying products from spam e-mail about weight loss topics.
Materials and Methods
Participants and Procedures
Participants were 200 students from a 4-year undergraduate commuter college in New York City. Of 212 students approached, 200 completed surveys for a response rate of 94.3%. The sample was a convenience sample. Participants were approached to complete an anonymous survey in classrooms, the school cafeteria, the library, and other public places. Informed consent was obtained. The survey was exempt from Institutional Review Board review and was conducted in accordance with the ethical principles of the Declaration of Helsinki. Data collection occurred during May 2007.
Demographic variables included age (years), sex, race/ethnicity (white, non-white), hours of internet use (daily), and number of spam e-mails received (daily).
Weight problems item.
Participants were asked, “Do you believe that you have weight problems?” with choices of “yes” or “no.”
Spam e-mail items.
These items were: 1) Did you receive spam e-mail about weight loss in the past year? 2) If yes, did you open and read the e-mail? 3) If you opened and read the e-mail, did you buy anything from the website provided?
Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale.
The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale10 is a reliable and valid measure. It includes 10 items measured on a Likert-style scale ranging from 1 = strongly disagree to 4 = strongly agree. Five items are reverse coded. Higher scores indicate greater self-esteem. Cronbach alpha reliability ranges from 0.77 to 0.88.10,11 In this sample, Cronbach alpha reliability was 0.87.
Perceived Stress Scale.
The Perceived Stress Scale12 is a reliable and valid measure. It includes 10 items measured on a Likert-style scale ranging from 0 = never to 4 = very often. Four items are reverse coded. Higher scores indicate greater perceived stress. Cronbach alpha reliability ranges from 0.80 to 0.86.12 In this sample, Cronbach alpha reliability was 0.84.
When appropriate, analysis of variance (ANOVA), the Pearson chi-square test, or the Mann-Whitney test were used to compare those with and without weight problems. Separate ANOVA and analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) were conducted with the psychological dependent variables of the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale and the Perceived Stress Scale. Covariates included age, sex, race/ethnicity, hours of internet use (daily), and number of spam e-mails received (daily). Pearson chi-square analyses were used to compare the responses of those with and without weight problems to the separate questions of receiving, opening, and purchasing from spam e-mail about weight loss topics. Lastly, we conducted a series of logistic regression analyses with three different outcome variables for receiving, opening, and purchasing from spam e-mail about weight loss topics. For each outcome variable, three models were conducted. The first model was conducted with the independent variable alone. The second model was conducted with the independent variable and the relevant demographic variables. The third model was conducted with the independent variable, the relevant demographic variables, and the psychological variables of self-esteem and perceived stress. SPSS® version 1513 (SPSS, Inc., Chicago, IL) was used for all analyses, except for the calculation of Cohen's d, which was found using an effect size calculator.14
Table 1 shows comparisons for those with (32.5%; n = 65) and without (67.5%; n = 135) weight problems as pertaining to the demographic characteristics of the sample. The average age was 21 years for both groups. There were a significantly greater percentage of women than men with weight problems. Slightly more than half the sample was non-white. Each of the groups averaged four hours of daily internet use. Although those without weight problems reported slightly more spam e-mail received daily (30 versus 25), this did not significantly differ between the groups.
Table 2 shows comparisons for weight problems and spam e-mail behaviors. Those with weight problems were significantly more likely than those without weight problems to have received spam e-mail about weight loss topics, opened spam e-mail about weight loss topics, and bought from spam e-mail about weight loss topics. Also, 18.5% [men: 3/16, 18.8%; women: 9/49, 18.4%] of those with weight problems bought from spam e-mail about weight loss topics while only about 5% of those without weight problems bought from spam e-mail about weight loss topics.
With regard to comparisons for the psychological variables, those with weight problems had lower self-esteem levels (M = 29.2, SD = 6.33) than those without weight problems (M = 31.4, SD = 4.88). This was significantly different with ANOVA (P = 0.01) and also with ANCOVA (P = 0.02) when adjusting for the covariates. There was a small-medium effect size (d = 0.38). Also, those with weight problems had greater perceived stress levels (M = 21.1, SD = 6.38) than those without weight problems (M = 18.3, SD = 5.82). This was significantly different with ANOVA (P = 0.002) and also with ANCOVA (P = 0.005) when adjusting for the covariates. There was a medium effect size (d = 0.46).
Table 3 shows the logistic regression analyses for receiving spam e-mail about weight loss topics. In Model 1 those with weight problems had a significant odds ratio of 2.59 as compared to those without weight problems for receiving spam e-mail about weight loss topics. In Model 2 that included demographics, the odds ratio for receiving spam e-mail for those with weight problems increased to 3.24. Also, the number of spam e-mails received was significantly associated with an increase in receiving spam e-mail about weight loss topics. In Model 3 that included the psychological variables, both the presence of weight problems and number of spam e-mails had similar odds ratios as in Model 2 and were still significantly associated with an increase in receiving weight loss spam e-mails. Also, increasing age was associated with receiving less spam e-mails about weight loss topics. None of the psychological variables were associated with receiving weight loss spam e-mails. The Figure includes the odds ratios for presence of weight problems for Model 3.
Table 4 shows the logistic regression analyses for opening the spam e-mails. In all 3 models, only the presence of weight problems was associated with significantly increased odds for opening the e-mails. The odds ratios ranged from 3.10 to 3.29 depending upon the model (also see Fig.).
Table 5 shows the logistic regression analyses for buying from spam e-mail about weight loss topics. In all 3 models, the presence of weight problems was associated with significantly increased odds for buying products advertised in the spam e-mails. For Models 1 and 2, the odds ratios were more than 4 for doing so as compared to those without weight problems. In Model 3, the presence of weight problems had an odds ratio of more than 3 for buying the advertised weight loss products. Also, increased perceived stress was associated with buying habits (Table 3) (also see Fig.).
We found strong support for three of our four hypotheses. Hypothesis 1 was supported where we found that the presence of weight problems among young adults is associated with increased odds for receiving spam e-mail about weight loss topics. Hypothesis 2 was supported where we found that the presence of weight problems among young adults is associated with increased odds for opening the weight loss spam e-mails. Hypothesis 3 was supported where we found that the presence of weight problems among young adults is associated with increased odds for buying weight loss products from spam e-mail. However, we only found partial support for hypothesis 4 where increased perceived stress is associated with buying products. However, perceived stress was not associated with receiving or opening the spam e-mails. Also, self-esteem was not related to receiving, opening, or buying the advertised products.
Prevalence of Spam E-mail on Weight Loss Topics
Spam e-mail on weight loss topics is quite common. Although significantly differing between those with and without weight problems, spam e-mails about weight loss arrived in more than 70% of the inboxes of all participants. The opening of this spam e-mail was still somewhat of interest, where almost 18% of those without weight problems and more than 40% of those with weight problems opened the spam e-mail. With regard to buying advertised products, there again was much more interest among those with weight problems (18.5% purchased products). There were also similar percentages for buying among men and women. However, only about 5% from those without weight problems bought products. It is interesting to note that, although a very small percentage, some individuals without weight problems bought products from the spam e-mail. A possible reason is that, although they do not have a “problem” with their weight, these individuals still believe that it would be worthwhile to lose some weight. Also, our overall buying behavior from spam e-mail from both the weight problems and no weight problems groups was 9.5% (19/200), which is slightly lower than the 13% reported from a six country survey for purchasing any health or pharmaceutical products from spam e-mail.1
The National Physical Activity and Weight Loss Survey reports the prevalence of nonprescription weight-loss supplement use within the past 12 months.15 Among its young adult group aged 18–34 years, the prevalence for women was 16.7% and 10.1% for men. Our buying percentage of 18.4% for women is very similar. However, our buying percentage of 18.8% for men is slightly higher.
Psychological Variables and Weight Concerns
As was expected for the psychological variables, we found lower self-esteem levels and increased perceived stress levels among those with weight problems as compared to those without weight problems. These psychological variables are not just restricted to these particular psychological constructs. They can relate to other psychological and physical health concerns too. For example, among college students with weight problems, lower self-esteem was significantly related to a number of measures of body image dissatisfaction.7 Also, increased stress negatively affected those who were trying to restrain their food intake and who, due to their stress, ate more food.16
Spam E-mail and Behavior
Those with weight problems had similar odds ratios of greater than 3 for the models that also included the demographic and psychological variables and the 3 separate outcomes of receiving, opening, and buying from the spam e-mails (Fig.). A literature search did not yield any studies on spam e-mail use and weight loss. However, there are a number of studies17–20 which show that for those seeking treatment for weight loss, counseling done through e-mail is effective in helping individuals lose weight. We suggest that spam e-mail may appeal to those with weight problems as a potential venue for helping them address their weight problems. This pattern of buying behavior from spam e-mail is of concern, as these individuals are apparently not seeking or are not satisfied with the evidence-based treatments available from physicians, psychologists, dieticians, nurses, exercise physiologists, or other health care providers.
Another area of concern is with regard to the content of the weight loss products that are bought by these consumers from this type of spam e-mail. A review of products sold by online pharmacies indicates that pharmaceutical and herbal products sold over the internet can range in quality from poor to excellent.21 One concern is that spam e-mail is potentially not any better than content sold by online pharmacies and that the quality too can range from harmless to potentially dangerous nonprescription products. A second concern is that some spam e-mail vendors advertise products that would require a prescription in the United States and are sold to consumers without requiring a prescription.
Our results among young adults show that an increased number of spam e-mails received is associated with receiving spam e-mail about weight loss topics, while the number of hours of internet use is not associated with receiving spam e-mail about weight loss topics. This is similar to the significant association between the number of spam e-mails received and the health spam e-mail received and to the lack of a relationship for hours of internet use and health spam e-mail received among college-age and working-age individuals.3
In the analyses for opening spam e-mail about weight loss topics, no demographic or psychological variables were associated with opening these e-mails. However, increased perceived stress was associated with increased odds for buying from the spam e-mails. Apparently, just as consumers shop for consumer goods as a form of stress relief,22 stress relief may be an additional reason for purchasing weight loss products from spam.
The American Medical Association strongly encourages physicians to assess weight and to discuss with patients the health implications of being overweight or obese.23 Patients will not typically initiate a discussion with their physician about weight concerns. Even when patients are already purchasing nonprescription weight-loss supplements, less than one-third of young adults discuss these supplements with a physician or other health care professional.15 It is also not so simple to effectively counsel patients to lose weight. One approach found effective by many primary care physicians is to focus on improving a patient's general health habits and wellness instead of focusing on a particular weight.24 Along with assessing and possibly counseling and/or treating patients for weight topics, it would be worthwhile to inquire about weight loss supplement use and also the source of the supplements.
Study Limitations and Future Research
The study has some potential limitations. First, these data were collected at one university and may not be representative of a national sample. Second, it may have been informative to obtain the body mass index of the participants to determine if being overweight was related to this buying behavior. However, weight perception is often quite subjective and many individuals who have appropriate weight will still seek to lose just a few pounds, so objective overweight status is not critical to understanding this spam e-mail buying behavior. Third, as this is the first such study, future research would be useful to conduct similar research to replicate these study findings with a larger sample size in a national sample. Fourth, it would be useful in future research to understand the actual products purchased from spam e-mail (ie herbal products, prescription medication, etc) to determine the actual potential risk from using such products. Fifth, future studies should also assess whether there are adverse events from the weight loss products purchased online.
Spam e-mails about weight loss are being looked at and purchased from, especially among those who are sensitive to weight concerns. Clearly, those who are sending these spam marketing e-mails have a receptive audience. Physicians, psychologists, dieticians, nurses, exercise physiologists, or other health care providers who assess, counsel, and treat individuals for weight concerns should discuss with their patients the potential risks of opening and/or purchasing from spam e-mail. They should emphasize to their patients the importance of working together with a health care professional in coordinating care when considering the use of weight loss products. It may even be useful for physicians to ask all their patients if they are purchasing health products from spam e-mail. Future research should study if health care professionals' discussions with patients who purchase from spam e-mail results in changed purchasing behavior from spam e-mail among these patients.
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