Life

'It feels like performative empathy': Why opt out emails for Father's Day can make the grief worse

When flower company Bloom & Wild sent the first 'opt-out' email in 2019 the practice was soon adopted industry-wide. But has it gone too far?

A child approaches a blurred-out fatherlike figure with a card and gift

Father's Day is one of a handful of sensitive ocassions where some companies give you the option to 'opt out' of their email marketing messages. Image: Canva

Father’s Day is a time to celebrate the dads and father-like figures in your life. But for many, the day carries a wave of complex emotions, ranging from grief to estrangement.

In 2019, flower company Bloom & Wild became the first company to introduce ‘opt-out’ emails for sensitive occasions, such as Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Valentine’s Day.

It quickly became an industry-wide standard, with big names such as Sainsbury’s, Boots and ASDA adopting the practice soon after. The move was originally praised by industry experts and customers alike.

“I grew up without a father,” Debbie Nahid, the co-founder of the Adult Adoptee Movement told the Big Issue. “I choose to opt out of emails when I have the option. I tend to opt out simply so I don’t feel triggered. It’s quite traumatic; images will appear or play in my head, memories will suddenly resurface and then there’s a lot of loss and grief attached to that.”

Debbie, 56, notes that it’s not just people affected by grief who struggle with Father’s Day.

“There are many children in the UK being raised in single-parent households, by single mothers. And some don’t know who their fathers are. In school, I remember teachers would tell us, that Father’s Day was coming up, and we’d spend time writing or drawing things in class. And it’s an uncomfortable thing to have to deal with if it doesn’t relate to you in any way, shape or form.”

When Bloom & Wild co-founder and CEO Aron Gelbard first developed the ‘opt-out’ initiative, he did so because of customer feedback.

He told the Big Issue: “We used to get occasional emails, especially around Mother’s Day from customers saying, ‘We really love what you guys do, but Mother’s Day is a difficult time for me – so I’d rather not get your emails.’

“So we used to put these customers on a separate email list and add them back into our database after Mother’s Day. Then in 2019, we sent out the first ever ‘opt-out’ email, and within 24 hours, we had 17,000 opt-outs.

“We were just totally blown away and realised this was a much bigger problem for our customers than we’d ever imagined. We then encouraged nearly 200 companies to join our newly formed Thoughtful Marketing Movement to replicate this practice. We’re really proud of the fact that we made opt-out sort of an industry standard, which we never expected it to be.”

Aron Gelbard is the co-founder and CEO of Bloom & Wild. Image: Tom Griffiths

For some, however, this new ‘onslaught’ of opt-out emails had the opposite intended effect and began bringing unwanted attention to the upcoming celebration directly into people’s personal inboxes.

“Emails about the day – even ‘opt-outs’ – are uninvited reminders,” Ellie Hatto told the Big Issue. “You’re directly confronted with and keenly feel that that person is not here anymore.

Ellie lost her father to suicide in 2013, which led her to start Beside Yourself CIC, a social enterprise representing the experiences, insights and needs of those impacted by suicide. She is also a volunteer peer support group facilitator for the national charity Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide. 

“I’m not a big fan of Father’s Day,” Ellie said. “And I’ve never been funnily enough. We never really celebrated those kinds of things as a family. My dad brought me up basically from the age of four. My mum died when I was nearly five of cancer. So he was the only parent I’ve ever had. This made his loss in some ways even more keenly felt.

“Obviously businesses, being keen to drive sales, are going to send these reminders. But it seems that they weren’t necessarily thinking about the ramifications of people revisiting things when creating the ‘opt-outs’. And it is upsetting. It’s traumatising for some people, and that’s certainly the case for people I speak to about it.”

Chris Hoyle, a 38-year-old senior business intelligence analyst who grew up in foster care, agrees with Ellie.

“[These emails are] very in your face,” he told the Big Issue. “Some of these ‘opt-out’ emails feel like performative empathy.

“When companies first started doing this, it was a real positive. They might not have got it right, but they thought about a group of people that didn’t necessarily want to hear about this, and they’ve did their best to think about how to accommodate them.”

Before becoming a father himself, Chris used to find Father’s Day “a bit weird” and thinks the celebration has become “massively commercialised”.

“I had a check of my emails earlier today,” he said, “and Tesco sent me one that said, ‘Do you want to opt out of Father’s Day for this year?’ Do you want to opt out this year?! How insensitive and stupid can you be?

“It’s almost a GDPR issue. If I’ve opted out, I’ve opted out, you don’t have my consent to send me those marketing emails again and again.”

With his ear to the ground, almost two weeks before this year’s Father’s Day, Aron once again placed Bloom & Wild as an innovator in their field by announcing a new way of giving their customers the option to ‘opt-out’.

“So many companies are now sending opt-out emails,” Aron admitted. “Including companies that weren’t selling very much for [these occasion days] in the first place. They were then sending opt-out emails almost as an excuse to talk about things like Mother’s and Father’s Day.

“At that point, we started to think about what we needed to evolve again. We’ve evolved our approach to an all-year-round preference centre, which we draw customers’ attention to at other times of the year, away from sensitive occasions – including when they sign up for our emails on the first day.

“By doing so, we’re giving people the same ability to opt-out, but in a way that isn’t resulting in them receiving 50 emails in the run-up to Mother’s or Father’s Day.”

Bloom & Wild were the first company to launch the ‘opt-out’ email in 2019 for Mother’s Day. Image: Bloom & Wild

With Bloom & Wild’s new approach, customers will have the ability to select from a list of sensitive occasions, which events they’d rather not hear about. This will then be kept on file and customers won’t be ‘opted back in’ unless they do so themselves via the preference centre.

“I think this should be absolutely commended,” Chris told the Big Issue. “You know, all of these days might be difficult for you – so you can sit down at a good time and deal with it in one go, away from the actual event. I think that’s the right approach.”

Bloom & Wild is hoping to make their latest adapted practice once again an industry-wide movement.

“I’d love for this to be a sort of call to action to people,” Aron explained. “So I’m happy for others in the e-commerce or gifting space who read this to reach out because we’d love to engage with other companies to try and make this the norm.”

While the introduction of a preference centre seems to be the start of a positive change in the special occasion industry, Debbie hopes to see a wider change in the advertising industry as a whole.

“I think Bloom & Wild’s suggestion is actually a good idea. But it’s important to remember that while we can opt out of emails, we can’t as easily opt out of seeing displays in the shop or adverts on the TV. 

“I think that advertisers should think really carefully about how they promote these occasions across various mediums, not just emails, because there is quite a large section of the community who just can’t relate to these celebrations.”

If you have been affected by a bereavement The Good Grief Trust has a list of support services across the UK, which you can find here.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? Get in touch and tell us moreBig Issue exists to give homeless and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy of the magazine or get the app from the App Store or Google Play.

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