In our increasingly micro-targeted age, being hit over the head with Mother’s Day messaging feels like a technological flaw.
My mother died eight years ago. While the loss gets easier, Mother’s Day does not.
Even just seeing those two words — Mother’s Day — makes me feel very small and sad. It reminds me of all the Mother’s Days, birthdays, Thanksgivings, and Christmases I’ve spent without her and will have to spend without her in the future. Sure, it’s a nice thought that millions of people are celebrating their mom. But it doesn’t make me feel any better about mine being gone.
Getting through the day itself actually isn’t that big of a struggle. The worst part is the six-week lead-up of commercials, promotional emails, and targeted ads fueled by narrow-minded marketing calendars. Brands act as though I could possibly forget Mother’s Day when I’d give anything for the chance to scramble for a last-minute gift for Mom; it’d mean that I have something to forget in the first place.
“Don’t be late for Mom!” Kate Spade insists.
“Call Mom tomorrow,” Anthropologie demands.
“We can always count on Mom to make sure we have a warm meal,” Seamless explains, before pivoting to sell me an e-gift card.
Mother’s Day is one of the most commercialized holidays of the year, and it’s impossible to ignore its profitability. In the weeks leading up, you can’t watch TV, open Facebook, or online shop without seeing ads reminding you to buy your mom a gift. In 2018, the National Retail Federation estimated that US consumers were expected to spend $23.1 billion on Mother’s Day — an average of $180 per person — on flowers, jewelry, greeting cards, gift cards, clothing, books, electronics, and housewares.
For a day that’s supposed to celebrate moms for all that they do, the increasingly promotional tone of Mother’s Day can take the fun out of it. Even Anna Jarvis, who founded Mother’s Day in 1908 to honor her late mother, grew frustrated with the commercialization of the holiday and confessed that she regretted ever starting it.
Mother’s Day is about celebrating all of the mothers in our lives, living or dead, biological or not, and whether they’re our own mother or not (or even a mother at all). But there’s something insulting about the default assumption that everybody’s mother is alive and that they have a good relationship with her — especially for an industry that increasingly prides itself on the ability to precisely target audiences with relevant messaging.
By now, you’re likely used to Facebook, Instagram, Amazon, and every other corner of the web tracking your clicks and using your browsing history to sell you products and ideas. Amazon recently launched a skin care line that’s likely informed by customer search data. Retargeting, which is seeing ads for items you viewed online but didn’t buy, is a daily occurrence. Sometimes these targeted ads are so specific to our private needs and interests it can feel like a personal attack.
HOW COME BIG DATA DOESN’T KNOW MY MOM IS DEAD?
I have two dogs, read a lot of books, collect houseplants, and enjoy needlepoint. I also suffer from chronic migraines, recently developed jawline acne, and am paying off credit card debt accrued from costly vet bills. I’m targeted accordingly. Like cat food or baby clothes, Mother’s Day is simply not relevant to me. So being hit over the head with Mother’s Day messaging feels like a technological flaw. How come Big Data doesn’t know my mom is dead?
I know that excluding individuals from massive marketing opportunities is a lofty ask. But at the same time — is it? If I can be added to the list of users to target for dog treats, it only seems logical that I could also be taken off the list of users to target for Mother’s Day.
I’m not the only person frustrated with Mother’s Day messaging. Last year, Cailin, a college student, lost her mother to an aggressive brain tumor. This will be her first Mother’s Day without her mom, and she wishes she could make the advertising stop.
“Mother’s Day ads have been popping up on my social media since the beginning of April,” she told me. “Seeing these ads makes me sad, angry, and ruins my focus. There’s nothing like going through your day and getting an email with a smiling face of a mom, an adult daughter, and a granddaughter telling you [to] celebrate someone you lost with a moment you’ll never have.”
Mother’s Day isn’t just difficult for people whose mothers passed away. It’s also difficult for those who have a strained or estranged relationship with theirs.
“When my father died, my mom abandoned having any parental influence and left me to fend for both her and myself when I was 18. Ten years later, she only reaches out when she needs something,” Stephanie, a social media account supervisor, told me. “Both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are incessant reminders that I’ll likely never get what I’ve always wanted: close relationships with stable parents. The reminders no longer hurt my feelings, but they do annoy the shit out of me.”
It’s not that people are anti-Mother’s Day; it’s that they personally could do without the constant reminders.
“I love moms and believe they should be celebrated,” Cailin added. “But it’s extremely difficult to get through the days with extra reminders that she’s gone.”
IF COMPANIES ARE GOING TO KEEP MINING OUR LIVES FOR DATA, THEY COULD AT LEAST TRY A LITTLE HARDER
There’s a legion of motherless mourners out there but most companies aren’t catching on. Still, in March, prior to the British celebration of Mother’s Day, UK-based flower delivery company Bloom & Wild did something different: They acknowledged that Mother’s Day can be a sensitive day for many and gave their customers the ability to opt out of receiving Mother’s Day emails altogether. A few weeks later, men’s apparel brand Chubbies did something similar, giving their subscribers the chance to opt out of both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day emails.
“Many of our customers wrote in last Mother’s Day to tell us about their losses — mums, miscarriages, and grandmothers,” Sara Gordon, VP of brand and creative for Bloom & Wild, told me via email. “We ourselves have friends and family members that have gone through these traumas or didn’t grow up with a mother at all.”
While it feels groundbreaking, this should be standard practice, and it certainly shouldn’t be news. But for now, it is. Brands cast a wide net on purpose to sell to as many people as possible, but it comes at the risk of alienating people in ways they could actually use as opportunities to gain their trust. If a florist (which sees plenty of its business on Mother’s Day) sees value in letting consumers opt out of Mother’s Day messaging, surely other companies can brainstorm ways to better target their customers, too.
This level of preemptive customer service from Bloom & Wild is rare, but the customer relationship management (CRM) technology behind it is fairly simple.
“We worked with our technology and CRM teams to devise a way to kindly ask if our customers didn’t want to hear from us about Mother’s Day marketing and then opt them out of specific emails during the period,” Gordon told me. “We knew it was the right thing to do, but we didn’t realize how much positive feedback we would get from doing it. The number of customers writing in to us with their stories and kind words reassured us how important and impactful this was to do for the women we serve with our flower service.”
Of course, this goes far beyond Mother’s Day. People are incorrectly targeted every day: some recovering from eating disorders get ads about weight loss plans; others who can’t conceive or who are uninterested in having children get ads about capitalizing on fertility. And we’re still in the process of understanding just how much The All-Knowing Network of Algorithms knows about us and what it’s capable of.
Hoping to add perspective from those who feed and manage these algorithms, I reached out to a number of tech companies that work with marketers to personalize individual users’ interactions online. But they all either ignored me or dodged my questions. These companies might be quietly hard at work further segmenting their data, but for now, ignoring these nuances continues to be a blind spot.
I don’t know if there will ever be a spring where Mother’s Day messaging goes dark on my timeline, where those struggling to conceive aren’t incorrectly reminded of their ticking biological clocks, or where those living with eating disorders aren’t targeted with weight-loss programs. But if companies are going to keep mining our lives for data, they could at least try a little harder.
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