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Re: The Stressful Email Marketing Tactic That Will Not Die

Glossier, Reformation, and Seamless have all tapped into it, for better or worse.

A woman sits on a picturesque hill, looking at her laptop.
Why does this marketing trend persist?
Photo: EyesWideOpen/Getty Images

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Another day, another complaint I feel compelled to lodge against brands in a public forum. Brands feed us, and they clothe us. And yet they betray our trust! Again and again we are forced to reckon with the fact that brands are not our friends. They never have been, and they never will be.

Today I would like to discuss the phenomenon that is brands trying to dupe people into opening their marketing emails by putting “FWD:” or “Re:” in the subject line. The message looks like it’s coming from a friend or like you’re already engaged in the conversation, which can be incredibly alarming when the subject is something urgent. Here are a few real emails that members of the Racked team have received recently:

A subject line that reads: “Re: Satisfying that craving.”

A weirdly sexual message from Seamless.

A subject line that reads: “RE: YOUR PTO REQUEST.”

What? I didn’t request time off! Is my boss mad at me? A moment of professional stress brought to you by Reformation!

A subject line that reads, “Re: Your Flight Confirmation.”

SHEER PANIC!!! (From Barry’s Boot Camp.)

A subject line that reads, “Thank you for your email. I am out of office until...”

An OOO riff from Glossier.

This tactic totally works, especially if you’re not paying close attention to who sent the email. (I often am not.) What makes it doubly annoying is that brands have been doing it for years, and shoppers have been complaining about it for just as long. Yet nothing has changed.

Let’s look at some historical tweets.

Given how clogged most people’s inboxes are, brands have to get clever with their email marketing. Fair enough. And the results can be effective: President Obama’s re-election campaign famously used subject lines like “Wow,” “Rain check?” and “Hey” to get people to click through. (Some people found Obama’s approach charming. The Hairpin compared them to notes from a stalker.) What’s definitely not cute, though, is making your customers feel stressed, dumb, or distrustful. The world is overwhelming enough already.

Perhaps one day brands will go around the bend and over-deliver by sending marketing emails with subjects like, “No rush on this,” “We’re having a sale right now, but you have a week to get to it, so take your time,” and “Would you like to unsubscribe? There is a large link at the top of this email.”

Until then, our cortisol levels will lurch into overdrive, we will angrily tweet, and we will get distracted and forget to unsubscribe.