A deluge of Mother’s Day marketing emails flooded Michelle Levinson’s inbox year after year — sometimes 15 in a day, each reminding them of their estrangement from their mother.
Then last month, Levinson received a different kind of email: “We understand Mother’s Day can be a really difficult time for some of our #PashFam,” read the message from Passion Planner, a planner and journal company. “If you’d rather not receive emails from us about Mother’s Day this year, feel free to opt-out.”
The choice felt like a breath of fresh air for Levinson, who lives in Cleveland. They gladly clicked the button to unsubscribe, thankful for the option to get fewer unpleasant reminders of the holiday.
“I’m honestly very grateful that there’s even a step in this direction from even just one company,” Levinson said. “It’s heartwarming to know that somebody somewhere is trying to think of the people that they’re reaching out to.”
Passion Planner is part of a growing number of brands letting customers unsubscribe from emails tailored to a holiday that may be painful to them. To many people, Mother’s Day is a stinging reminder of the death of a parent or child, a broken relationship, infertility or other ruptures between desire and reality.
This is the second year that Moment, an online photography and filmmaking gear marketplace based in Woodinville, Washington, sent its customers emails and text messages offering to unsubscribe them from Mother’s Day emails. Carlie Penning, a designer on the growth team who lost one of her parents years ago, pitched the idea last year. Customers reacted positively, said Alec Ploof, the company’s head of growth.
So far, 12,000 people have opted out of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day emails and text messages, said Ploof.
Kate Spencer, author of “The Dead Moms Club,” a memoir about grieving the loss of her mother to pancreatic cancer in 2007, still recalls the barrage of emails that flooded her inbox “almost immediately” after her mother’s passing. Spencer, who was then 27, said the emails were relentless — a constant reminder of the empty space in her heart.
“It not only left me feeling angry and sad about missing my mother and not having my mom to celebrate,” Spencer said. “It made me feel almost excluded from the holiday and the joy that they are kind of putting upon you.”
British florist Bloom & Wild is commonly credited with starting the opt-out trend in 2019. Since then, brands including OpenTable, Away, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams and Etsy have followed suit, intending to be more cognizant about how people experience Mother’s Day differently. Some companies have since expanded their offers to include Father’s and Valentine’s days.
Reactions to the surge in purported corporate empathy have been mixed. Many people have expressed gratitude, saying the opportunity to avoid unpleasant messaging makes them think highly of the brand. Others have said the number of companies participating in the trend means the opt-out emails themselves bombard customers with undesirable messaging.
The popularity of promotional messages seems to stem from brands’ relatively recent focus on having direct relationships with their customers, rather than selling through retailers, said Dan Frommer, editor of the New Consumer, a newsletter covering the intersection of technology and consumer brands. Email is an inexpensive way to do that, he said, so companies are incentivized to put effort into the content of their email marketing.
Because younger generations have shown interest in supporting brands that align with their values, the opt-out messages have become appealing to companies, Frommer said. Mother’s Day is not important to most brands’ bottom lines, he said, so it’s easy for them to risk potentially losing a little business for the benefit of being viewed as considerate.
“I think a lot of brands see empathy as a key part of their personality,” Frommer said, “and what better way to be empathetic than to ask your customer base if they want to not get emails about a topic that they’re sensitive about?”
Some customers may be more likely to give that brand their business in the future, Frommer said — although he said others may get dozens of Mother’s Day opt-out offers and become annoyed with the frequent reminders that the holiday is approaching.
That’s a concern for Tabish Bhimani, a Toronto-based email marketer for direct-to-consumer brands. For a year or two after noticing brands sending opt-out emails for Mother’s Day, Bhimani said he advised his clients to follow along. But later, he said, he wondered how many other companies were distributing similar messages and whether the volume of emails would defeat the purpose.
“When you’re essentially being told over and over and over again to marginalize yourself and move yourself away from this event, it reinforces the trigger,” said Bhimani, founder of Mastrat Digital.
Now, Bhimani favors relegating the option to unsubscribe from holiday-specific emails to a customer’s preferences section with a brand. A message welcoming someone to a company’s email list might remind them that they can change their preferences at any time, he said, so they do not have to see countless reminders before a holiday.
That tactic appeals to Jen Capstraw, an Atlanta-based email strategy educator who said an onslaught of opt-out emails can be worse than receiving Mother’s Day promotional messages.
“The 20th time, I’m like, ‘Please, can you stop bringing this topic up?’ ” said Capstraw, co-founder of Women of Email, which promotes professional growth among women in the email industry. ” ‘You can collect my preferences, but be subtle about it.’ “
Andrea Lucibello, a social worker and the coordinator of bereavement services for Yale New Haven Hospital, recently held a seminar in anticipation of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day for adults who have lost a parent. Grief, Lucibello said, is a lifelong emotion that stems out of love. The loss of a loved one is initially acute, she said, but the emotion can become more manageable as time passes.
But there are certain moments when the raw sorrow reemerges.
“There are these days — holidays, birthdays, other special days — where grief can resurface, and Mother’s Day is one of them,” Lucibello said. “It can reopen the grief because people recap memories and they long for their loved one.”
Coming four months after her mother died, the opt-out emails that Christine Cummings received from the bakery Milk Bar and weighted-blanket maker Bearaby were a godsend. Cummings, a Chicago teacher, had been dreading Mother’s Day messages that she expected to trigger her grief.
So she said she felt understood when she saw both companies’ preholiday emails. Immediately, she unsubscribed.
“The pain of losing a parent at a young age is hard enough,” said Cummings, 38. “And being reminded of Mother’s Day every time I check my email — if there was a chance that wouldn’t happen, I want to do everything possible for that.”