Mackenzie Walton's first Father's Day without her dad was shaping up to be tough. Then the marketing emails hit.
"I saw some 'Don't forget Dad!' messaging and panicked because I hadn't bought him a present, which led to some ugly crying in the bathroom at work when I abruptly remembered why I hadn't been shopping yet," the Cincinnati-based freelance editor told NPR over email.
That was in 2007. And when Walton's mom passed away just shy of a decade later, she said she really became aware of how "relentlessly brutal that stretch of spring can be when you don't have parents in your life, for whatever reason."
Many people struggle with Mother's Day and Father's Day, for different reasons — perhaps they have lost parents or children, confronted fertility issues or have complicated relationships with family members. As author and grief advocate Megan Devine puts it, "there are so many ways to lose a mother or to lose mothering."
And the spring holiday season is full of painful reminders, often in the form of retail advertisements and promotions that can range in tone from straightforward to snarky.
"There's often a real scolding or judgmental tone to it, like 'Did you remember Mom?' or 'Last chance to treat Dad!' I would love nothing more than to treat Dad, but he's dead, and now I'm sitting here thinking about that when I just wanted to check my email," Walton wrote.
But things are starting to look a little different this year.
Throughout the month of April, expressions of gratitude were all over social media, reacting to something unusual: emails from companies allowing people to opt out of communications related to the upcoming holiday.
"We understand that Mother's Day can be a difficult time for some," reads one message from the e-commerce marketplace Etsy, which is known for its handmade crafts and gifts. "If you'd rather not receive emails from us about Mother's Day this year, let us know by removing yourself below. We'll still keep you in the loop about one-of-a-kind finds we think you'll love, just without the Mother's Day messages."
Experts described it as a small but growing trend, likely accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, many companies told NPR they wanted to recognize that Mother's Day can be challenging, especially this year, and help make customers' lives easier.
While some critics worry companies are being overly sensitive or not sensitive enough, or hesitate to lift brands up as heroes, the reaction to the opt-out option has been overwhelmingly positive.
"If it's a hard holiday for you, it is no matter what," said Katie Thomas, who leads the Kearney Consumer Institute. "A single email opt-out won't make that much of a difference, but at the same time, acknowledgement that it's hard is meaningful."
In a year where loss, grief, technology and identity have been at the forefront of the national conversation, the budding trend of email opt-outs is for many both a welcome change and a sign of what may lie ahead.
Who's doing it?
The national companies at the forefront of this trend vary by sector — from food to home goods to apparel — but are largely e-commerce brands, many with sizable Gen Z followings.
The five companies who spoke to NPR all shared that they are either likely or definitely going to offer this option in future years, based on positive feedback.
Only one — Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams — said it had done so before. The others adopted the practice this year, citing the grief wrought by the pandemic.
Jennifer Glass, the director of digital marketing at Pandora North America, said the jewelry company had learned a lot over the last 12 months about "how to be sensitive to our customers and what they're going through as well as how to better show support."
Similarly, Etsy said through a spokesperson that "after such a heavy year, the team agreed that this Mother's Day felt especially emotional." It also plans to offer opt-outs for Father's Day campaigns in its core markets, which include the U.S., U.K., Canada and France.
A spokesperson for skin care company Aesop, headquartered in Melbourne, Australia, said it is testing the opt-out option for both holidays in the U.S. and Canada for the first time this year, and has already received several personal stories and messages of thanks from appreciative customers.
So has the Instagram-friendly luggage brand Away, which offered the option this year for the first time but says that based on customer feedback, it won't be the last.
More than 4,000 subscribers chose to opt out of Mothers' Day and/or Father's Day emails, and the company received more than 250 messages of "customer love," according to Selena Kalvaria, Away's chief marketing officer.
Among the people taking to social media to praise and amplify the opt-out email messages they've received is Lana Schwartz, a Brooklyn writer who posted a tweet in mid-April sharing a screenshot of a message from the linens and home goods store Parachute. It quickly went viral.
Schwartz, who lost her mom in late 2018, said she is glad to see companies offering this option, which may mean a lot to people who don't want Mother's Day emails but won't necessarily impact those who do.
"We're coming off a year of so much hurt and loss, there's really no reason why companies can't take an extra step to be a little sensitive," Schwartz said.
Devine, the grief advocate, said she was so excited to see companies adopting this policy that she posted call-outs on her social media channels to collect their names and celebrate them publicly.
"I'm all for humanity in the business world and the marketplace, and I think it's a really cool trend and I want to see more of it," Devine said. "It's a very simple user experience, which is why it works and is so powerful. All you have to do is click, and then this sharp, poky bit of pain in your inbox goes away."
The practice of allowing subscribers to opt out of Mother's Day-related emails is not entirely new.
Dan Frommer, the founder and editor in chief of business publication The New Consumer, believes multiple factors are at play.
Citing the pandemic and movement for racial justice, he noted that there has been a growing push in the last year for brands to act in a way that is more empathetic and socially conscious. Plus, he said, Mother's Day and Father's Day — like many holidays — have become increasingly about buying and giving gifts.
"Two things are mixing: booming commercialism, and another is this brand empathy thing that's been bubbling up," Frommer said. "And then the third thing, which is perhaps fuel to the fire, is just the never-ending stream of email marketing that everybody gets now because we've been shopping online and every time we become a customer of another company they feel like they have the permission to send marketing emails constantly."
Frommer can pinpoint the exact moment he decided to write about this trend: the morning of April 21, when he got three Mothers' Day opt-out emails in a row within 15 minutes.
Frommer added that advances in technology have made it easy for companies to segment their audiences, sending — or withholding — specific emails. Such technology is essentially built into every email marketing platform at this point, he said, though each company has its own tools and processes.
"At a certain point, you're being added to a list that says 'don't send them Mother's Day emails' or you're being subtracted from a list that says 'Mother's Day emails,'" he explained of the process.
Thomas, of the Kearney Consumer Institute, sees the trend as a good thing because it means companies are being more responsive to customers' needs. People may want to mute Mother's Day emails — or get fewer marketing emails in general — for any number of reasons, she said, and digitally-savvy brands are now catching on to the practice.
"I think we're starting to see a different acknowledgement of the holiday than you have in the past ... especially this year when a lot of people have dealt with loss, a lot have maybe spent more time with their parents or none at all," Thomas said. "It's a complicated holiday this year so it's probably top of mind in a way that it wasn't before, which isn't a bad thing. Sometimes it takes that disruption to have these kinds of things start to shift."
Recognizing grief without hurting the bottom line
When it comes to grief for a loss, however recent, author Devine believes "acknowledgement is the best medicine." As she explains it, that's why the ability to proactively opt out of Mother's Day emails is so powerful.
"You're not going to fix somebody's dead mom. You're not going to fix somebody's dead sister," she said. "But to say 'I see you and I know this is hard' — that goes a really, really long way."
Devine noted that not being able to opt out of marketing communications can be difficult in all kinds of situations, such as parents who have lost children but continue to get digital advertisements for baby products; or people whose loved ones have died in hospitals but keep getting fundraising mailers.
In these cases, she said, it can feel like companies only see customers as "a means to an end." Recognizing that holidays can be difficult for people goes a long way toward acknowledging their humanity, she said.
"I don't think [opt-out emails are] a shallow, capitalistic marketing ploy even though it affects the bottom line and sales," Devine said. "I think it's a movement towards acknowledging the full humanity of your customers and your audience, and being able to say 'we see who you are as a person and you're not just a sales call for us.'"
Not everyone in the grief community agrees.
Terri Daniel, an inter-spiritual hospice chaplain and grief counselor, said she found the idea of opt-out emails to be "manipulative," as she believes companies may be seeing it as a businesses opportunity to make extra contact with their customers or improve their own image.
"Grieving people know that there is Mother's Day and Christmas and Father's Day — we know these things exist, we know it's going to be promoted all over the place," said Daniel, who lost her son in 2006. "We're big people, we can handle that, we're grown ups. And it's almost like they're treating us like babies."
Companies may be subverting their own aims by reminding people of the very holiday they are hoping to avoid, she added.
Kalvaria, the chief marketing officer at Away, said the company had actually identified that as a potential issue.
"We were conscious of the fact that we would need to reference these holidays within an opt-out message, which could be overwhelming in itself, but we were extremely delicate and intentional with our language," she said.
Devine agreed that the best of these opt-out messages are short and direct, "acknowledging the mothering elephant in the room."
But she dismissed the other criticisms, noting that she'd received some 30 promotional emails in the span of two days reminding her to buy a Mother's Day gift — which she said feels more manipulative, and harder to ignore.
Walton, who has struggled with the influx of marketing emails in the past, said she is not necessarily concerned with how genuine a company's intentions appear.
"What's truly going on inside the heart of some corporate entity is irrelevant; I just want to not feel sad several times a day for two months or more," she wrote. "It's also just a matter of numbers to me — I'd rather risk facing my grief for the length of one email that allows me to opt out for the rest of the year (or better yet, forever) than deal with many."
The personalized future of email marketing
Some people might prefer to never get a Mother's Day promotional email again, while others might rely on those advertisements and discounts for their annual shopping.
U.S. data on the subject is scarce, though a March 2021 Guardian article offers two figures from two different U.K. retailers: The Very Group said more than one in 10 people who opened their emails opted out of Mother's Day reminders, while Waitrose said 8% of its email recipients did.
That's a small but not insignificant number, said Frommer of The New Consumer.
"If you can make life easier for 10% of your customers, that might be a worthwhile thing to do," he said.
In the case of Pandora, Glass said about 1% of customers chose to opt out. She added, "Even if one customer opted out, it makes sense to acknowledge this and respect their wishes."
Frommer thinks many companies are likely experimenting with the opt-out option to see how it works, with a hypothetical worst-case scenario being that customers are so bothered by the question that they unsubscribe from the mailing list altogether — but he said that doesn't seem to be happening.
As many experts noted, one of the defining characteristics of these opt-out emails is that they make clear they will keep customers otherwise in the loop. "We'll still send you delicious treats, just no Mother's Day stuff," as Milk Bar promises.
That reassures consumers they are still part of the community, and continues the relationship with them while removing "one of the poky bits from it," Devine said.
Still, many people are already overwhelmed by the sheer volume of marketing emails they receive, as consumer advocate Thomas said. Going forward, she predicts companies will use data to be more targeted in their communications and move away from a one-size-fits-all approach.
"Especially as data privacy continues to become more and more relevant, allowing consumers to kind of customize the data that they receive or opt in and out in an even more custom sense, I think it's something that will absolutely pick up that isn't just specific to holidays," Thomas said.
That's something that companies like Aesop and Away say they are already working on.
"We have a very robust community of email subscribers who likely receive dozens of branded emails a week," wrote Away's Kelvaria. "Because of this, we take a very thoughtful approach to our email segmentation and audience strategy, which ensures subscribers only receive messages most relevant to them."
In this way, the handful of companies now offering holiday-specific opt-out emails may actually be a sign of what lies ahead.
Frommer predicts that in the next decade, companies will send different emails to different subscribers based on characteristics like where they live and how recently they made their last purchase.
"Personalization and customization are the future of marketing, or at least a big part of the future, and therefore while this may seem like kind of a one-off thing it is actually very much where things are going," Frommer said. "So perhaps being early on this is a good thing."
What should companies, and people, do?
Grief is personal, and different people will want to commemorate difficult holidays in their own way.
People should feel able to spend these holidays in the way that works best for them, even if that means declining invitations or not responding immediately to (much appreciated) messages, said Schwartz. She said she plans to avoid Instagram on Mother's Day, but would never tell anyone not to post pictures of their own.
Grief experts did offer some recommendations for things companies — and people — can do to be more sensitive.
Brian Smith, a grief guide and life coach, highlighted the importance of inclusive communication that makes everyone feel welcome to participate in the holiday. In the case of Mother's Day, he said that means acknowledging that "some mothers are missing children and some children are missing mothers, but they will always have that love."
Devine said she would like to see more "curiosity," and encouraged people to check in on their friends and clients ahead of holidays rather than making assumptions about whether they are celebrating or offering unsolicited advice.
She believes the pandemic has "made us all more aware of loss and much more aware that the ways in which we typically talk about grief and loss" — like telling people to look at the bright side — "don't work."
So will giving people the option to avoid Mother's Day marketing become the norm?
Frommer advises companies to decide based on their product, brand identity and customer base.
He said he doesn't necessarily think all companies should adopt this practice, but said in general there is considerable benefit and relatively low risk for brands who want to make empathy part of their strategy.
Indeed, research from New York-based firm Wunderman Thompson found that 85% of Gen Z-ers "believe brands should be about something more than profit, while 80% believe brands should help make people's lives better."
Email marketing isn't the only place to do that.
Notably, people can't as easily choose to opt-out of getting certain television commercials, online advertisements or Instagram posts. While it's possible to set up filters to block emails containing specific words, experts said they would like to see more companies let subscribers opt in or out of emails based on factors like subject matter.
Walton said she's "just in favor of more options." But she does have one fear — that opting out of emails related to specific holidays could lead to marketing which targets grief itself.
She added: "If I'm on the no-Mother's/Father's Day list, please don't ever send me a spring email promoting the Loving Remembrance Necklace from XYZ Jewelry."