Software company’s publicity gag goes awry

It started as a marketing gimmick, meant to draw attention to Inform AG’s security software, in advance of the CeBIT trade fair. But a few recipients took the German company’s direct-mail pitch – in the form of a blackmail letter from a shadowy underground organization – all too seriously.

“We know everything. Follow our directions, or else you’re finished. No cops, no tricks!” reads the letter, which was sent on March 6 to 2,400 potential customers on Inform’s mailing list. The text, in the crooked typeface of an old manual typewriter, is followed by the rubber-stamp seal of the fictitious “Front for International Data Protection.”

Some readers were not amused, said Felicia Krenek, Inform’s marketing director. “About five per cent took it seriously,” and contacted their company security departments or police. The public prosecutor’s office in Cologne opened an investigation.

The problem, she said, was that “due to the German Post Office, despite all our efforts,” the second half of the mailing didn’t arrive on time. Another mass mailing in the same style went out on March 8. This one reads, “Come to the meeting point at CeBIT, Hall 2, at Inform AG … This is your only chance! Bring your data to safety!”

“It was mailed on a Thursday, and a lot of people didn’t receive it until the following Tuesday,” said Krenek. “We hadn’t expected it to take that long.”

As soon as the company learned of the confusion, it sent a third letter – this time apologizing – to all recipients.

“Please excuse us if we disturbed you. Of course we will no longer use or send this mailing,” it reads, this time in a plain, modern font, under Inform’s own logo.

As for the legal consequences of the gag, Inform doesn’t expect to receive any threatening letters in its own mailbox. “Our lawyers tell us that the investigation will probably be dropped,” said Krenek.

Inform AG, in Cologne, can be reached at