Chicago Automobile Trade Association

What dealers need to know about compliance with CAN-SPAM Act

November 22, 2010
E-mail: Marketing opportunity or potential liability?

It comes in a flash, and you think you have a great idea for a quick marketing campaign. You have customer data files, and the "special" is locked and loaded. With a single mouse click, the ad is disseminated to your customers. Now what? 

Maybe the phones will start ringing, or maybe you’ll receive an unwanted phone call—from an irate customer who feels he’s been spammed. That certainly wasn’t the dealer’s intention. But has a law been broken? Perhaps.


The Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2003 imposes restrictions on the use of commercial e-mail messages, but excludes "transactional or relationship" messages from most of the restrictions. The CAN-SPAM Act took effect Jan. 1, 2004. 

A commercial e-mail is any message whose primary purpose is "the advertisement of a commercial product or service (including content on an Internet Web site operated for a commercial purpose)." To determine the primary purpose of an e-mail, the Federal Trade Commission established four categories:


Category 1: An e-mail is considered "primary" if its content solely advertises or promotes a product or service. 

Category 2: An e-mail with purely "transactional or relationship" content is not considered commercial e-mail.


Category 3: An e-mail that contains both "commercial" content and "transactional or relationship" content is considered "commercial" if either

  • a recipient reasonably interpreting the subject line would likely conclude that the message advertises or promotes a product or service; or
  • the message’s "transactional or relationship" content does not appear at or near the beginning of the message.


Category 4: An e-mail that contains both "commercial content" and other content that is not "transactional or relationship" is considered commercial if either

  • a recipient reasonably interpreting the subject line would likely conclude that message advertises or promotes a product or service; or
  • a recipient reasonably interpreting the body of the message would likely conclude that its primary purpose is to advertise or promote a product or service.


"Commercial" e-mail requirements


  • Messages categorized as "commercial" must do the following, clearly and conspicuously:
  • Identify the message as an advertisement or solicitation.
  • Notify the recipient of the opportunity to opt-out of receiving further commercial e-mail messages.
  • Provide a valid physical postal address for the sender’s business.
  • Provide a functioning return e-mail address or other Internet-based mechanism that permits the recipient to submit an opt-out request.
  • Maintain ability to receive any opt-out requests for at least 30 days after the message is transmitted.
  • Process any opt-out requests within 10 business days.


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