Rethinking Valentine’s Day Marketing for the Unattached or Lonely
Questrom’s Barbara Bickart on why some businesses are letting customers opt out of Valentine’s Day messaging and whether this is a passing fad
- Etsy, other companies are allowing customers to forego emailed Valentine’s pitches
- Goal is to avoid triggering loneliness, depression in the unattached
- Questrom’s Barbara Bickart expects trend to continue, unless it smacks of marketing overkill
Roses are red, violets are blue,
But if you’ve no true love, Valentine’s is blue, too.
The realization that a day celebrating relationships may trigger those who lack one is seeping into that seemingly heartless enterprise—marketing. More businesses are allowing patrons to opt out of email Valentine sales pitches, aware that reminders about love might make the unattached anxious or depressed.
Online retailer Etsy is one, having already provided the same option for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day to those whose parents are deceased or estranged. And 150 companies joined British florist Bloom & Wild’s “Thoughtful Marketing Movement,” allowing sales-pitch opt-outs “around sensitive occasions like Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day.”
The move comes as the number of ads Americans are exposed to has rocketed from 500 a day in the simpler 70s to tenfold that number in the email-drenched 21st century.
We asked Barbara Bickart, a Questrom School of Business associate professor of marketing and senior associate dean of graduate programs, why usually marketing-manic firms would forego product pitches, and whether this movement is a short-term fad or here to stay.
with Barbara Bickart
BU Today: Valentine’s-related spending surged from $15 billion in 2009 to $21 billion last year, but the percentage of Americans celebrating the day nosedived during that time—63 percent to 52 percent. Is allowing opt-outs less altruistic than it seems, with customers falling away?
Barbara Bickart: Good marketing includes building longer-term relationships with consumers. Allowing opt-out for certain holiday pitches could help marketers in the goal of fostering a deeper loyalty with consumers. Providing this option could suggest to consumers that the brand really does care about their well-being. So while there might be a short-term loss around holiday sales, companies may see longer term benefits to this approach.
BU Today: Does research really suggest that Valentine’s pitches to lonely people can be harmful? Or is this more in the category of just respecting customers’ possible feelings?
Barbara Bickart: While I don’t know of research that specifically looks at whether Valentine’s pitches to lonely people are harmful, what we do know is that people use what they see around them, including advertisements, to determine what is “normal,” and they then evaluate their own situation relative to that norm.
If consumers are exposed to advertisements suggesting that everyone is having a romantic Valentine’s Day celebration, they’ll likely use that information as a standard of comparison to evaluate their own situation. Therefore, if they’re not celebrating, or even if they have a less elaborate or romantic celebration planned, they could likely feel down about themselves. Seeing ads for something that you are not experiencing could lead to a feeling of missing out on something important, which could result in feelings of sadness.
Providing this option could suggest to consumers that the brand really does care about their well-being.
BU Today: Do you expect this shift to last, or will it be a passing fad?
I believe that opt-out trends allow consumers some agency in their relationship with brands, and therefore could lead to strong brand relationships in the long run. Providing an opt-out option allows for a more individualized approach to marketing, enabled by digital technology. Therefore, I don’t necessarily see it going away.
The trick will be to do it well—to make sure that marketers are providing options to opt out in the right situations and to do so in a way that feels authentic to the consumer. If offering an opt-out feels too much like a marketing ploy, it could backfire and turn consumers off of the brand.
BU Today: What effect might COVID-19, and the widely reported increase in depression, be having on businesses that might think Valentine’s pitches would be piling on in an already difficult time?
The answer depends on how companies are pitching the message. While ads about Valentine’s Day could prime feelings of loneliness, it is also likely that during COVID-19, rituals that celebrate feelings of connection are increasingly important and welcome. I’ve seen several Valentine’s Day pitches promoting the idea of sending cards to friends, much like kids do in grade school, that resonate with the need to connect, and not just in the romantic way that we think of when we think of Valentine’s Day. The ads also build on feelings of nostalgia for earlier (maybe simpler!) times. By broadening the message and making the holiday more inclusive, brands might be able to avoid some of the downsides.