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Sharing Your Grief, Loss, Trauma—With Retailers?

Are trigger warnings embedded in your online ads?

Key points

  • Is it wise, healthy, smart, or in everybody's interest to decline to see what might make you uncomfortable?
  • Are opt-out options in advertising and marketing decisions based on the consumer's well-being?
  • How much of our intimate lives, including our traumas, should we share with those pitching us more stuff?
  • Companies are worried about their bottom lines and do not really care if you bottom out.

The questions were broached in a tender way. Would he prefer to be removed from ads focused on Father's Day? They were posed online by retailers selling coffee and men's grooming products, as well as by restaurants, companies from which my husband regularly purchases products.

Had I received similar notes? he asked in a casual conversation. Indeed, my computer's junk-mail folder held proof that I had, although they hadn't registered in my emotional, intellectual, or consumer-brain landscape. I did not remember getting any such notices around Mother's Day and wondered why.

Curious, I took my ques: n to the hive mind of Facebook: Are advertisers expressing genuine concern for the emotional well-being of their patrons by allowing then to avoid possibly traumatic memories or simple psychological uneasiness around specific holidays?

In other words, is it wise, healthy, smart, and in everybody's interest to decline to see what might make you uncomfortable?

If it's not in everyone's best interest, then who profits? As the old Latin phrase would put it, "cui bono?"

Many of the respondents to my questions were enthusiastic about the opt-out feature. Eileen Scully, a SheSource Expert at Women's Media Center, argued that "Whatever brand manager or comms person decided to give us an opt-out of the forced, cringey 'everyone has loving uncomplicated families but you' messaging deserves a promotion."

Scully's comment pinpoints the stimulus for the recent tide of opt-out advertising as "How a Simple Opt-Out Email Initiative Started a Movement for Thoughtful Marketing" by Emma Bainbridge, published in "The Luupe."

"In 2019, U.K. flower delivery company Bloom & Wild started to give customers the option to choose not to receive emails about Mother’s Day when they noticed that people were requesting to temporarily unsubscribe for that period," Bainbridge explains.

It was my friend James Lattin, Robert A. Magowan Professor of Marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business, who first brought Bainbridge's story to my attention. Many other resondents later cited it as well.

Emotional wellness was at the heart, it seems, of permitting customers to suspend adverts during sensitive periods of time, and it received a great deal of attention in the U.K, where the practice began: "This opt-out policy received a lot of press and was even mentioned in a debate in the U.K. Parliament about bereavement counseling. MP Matt Warman, who lost both his parents, praised the policy and suggested that 'organizations such as the Advertising Standards Authority could perhaps make this part of a voluntary code around data'."

Ah, data. Do we want to share information about our intimate lives with those who collect information about us in order to sell us more products, goods, and services?

That stirs caution about the cunning offer by multinational corporations (or small brands) to insulate the most sensitive parts of ourselves.

"I saw things on FB and from Storyworth asking about opting out from Mothers' Day ads," wrote Timothy A. Livengood in response to my Facebook question. "I can see why people might find the occasion tedious if one is simply not interested, but the marketing approach definitely leans towards saving people from heartbreak. I do take the rather smug attitude that we need to grasp and understand our pain, rather than just evading it at all costs. But, even if I were to want to avoid some such experience, I definitely do not want to hand advertisers that much more knowledge of my emotional life that they can use in manipulating me."

Elizabeth Zezima, an operations professional with a degree in psychology, argues that there might be a false trust being built by the companies who who use such methods: "For me this demonstrates a painful reality. As a country we talk a lot about mental health but we don’t have the institutional infrastructure to actually help people. So the workaround that makes up for it is to create spaces where people can opt out to avoid their feelings. Advertising evokes emotion to sell us things that fill our empty spaces or goad us into participating in empty manufactured celebrations. Perhaps this campaign is an acknowledgment that for some guilt-inducing consumerism can do more harm than good."

"But," she added, "avoidance is not treatment. Or healing. Any more than retail therapy is."

Bradley Sherman pointed to an offline precedent for the anxiety we've all felt when faced with reminders of approaching emotionally-charged events: "I have to laugh because this reminds me of my little brother's absolute anger in early August when back-to-school sales would be advertised. 'Why do they have to remind us?'"

It is not even the smallest company's job to take care of me, but it might certainly be part of their marketing strategy to make me feel as if we're wonderfully close. They even remind me when I've left something in my shopping cart. Surely only a best friend would do that!

I am apprehensive of any entity that wishes to create a quick sense of intimacy by requesting I reveal my own vulnerabilities, anxieties, losses, and traumas in order to invent a false display of compassion to attach me to them.

We need to take care of our fragile inner lives in whatever way makes us safe—-not merely "feel safe" but genuinely be safe.

My husband did not opt-out of the coffee ads for Father's Day because Nespresso doesn't need to know about his childhood. Nespresso needs to know about his need for caffeine.

I do not know my coffee purveyor, preferred chocolatier, or even my favorite bra manufacturer to trust them with my sense of loss, my grief, my anxiety, or my holiday-induced stress.

Their job is to keep me an active client and consumer—not to be my friend, and it is disingenuous for them to act as if they know me personally.

Friends don't ask friends to pay retail and appropriate state-taxes, plus shipping and handling.

Companies worry about their bottom lines. They are not worried if I bottom-out.

I'll end with another Latin phrase, one that's been around for a long time and remains in use for a good reason: Caveat emptor!

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