Chelcie Gette’s mother called her early Tuesday to tell her she had gotten something in the mail. The two went on FaceTime and opened it together. “It was a cute little card congratulating me for my soon-to-be baby,” Gette, 27, said.
There was one hiccup. “I knew I was not pregnant, so it was very confusing,” Gette said. “My mom thought this was my way of telling her I was pregnant!”
It’s likely that thousands of women across the country in their mid-20s to early 30s received such a package this week: correspondence from a stranger congratulating them on their pregnancy, along with several gift cards for baby products. Many of the women who received it, though, weren’t pregnant.
The card was purple and had a cartoon avocado with a heart over its pit. It read: “Holy guacamole! You’re going to avo baby!” Inside was what looked like a handwritten note, signed with a heart from “Jenny B.” It said: “Congratulations!!! I’m so excited for you! I hope you like these.” Included were a handful of coupons, five gift cards that amounted to $245 and a receipt proving their value.
Lena Ghamrawi, a 27-year-old lawyer who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, said she opened her own card when she got home from work Wednesday. She is a policy counsel at Future of Privacy Forum, a think tank in Washington focused on issues of data privacy, and also is not pregnant. Thinking it may have been a gift from a friend who mistakenly thought she was pregnant, Ghamrawi began searching her phone contacts for a Jenny B.
“Once I ruled that out, I thought, ‘OK, maybe it’s a group that’s against Planned Parenthood that’s trolling people’ — because I did make a donation recently to them,” she said.
When she fell short, she searched on Google and quickly came across a Reddit thread in which dozens of women said they had received the same package. Many warned against using the gift cards — it was all an elaborate scheme, they said.
But the gift cards are real. So is Jenny B.
The letters were a flawed direct mail marketing campaign for Mothers Lounge, a wholesale mother and baby product distributor with several brands, based in Pleasant Grove, Utah. Its products range from baby slings to car seat covers, breast pads and baby leggings. Jenny Bosco and her husband, Kaleb Pierce, started the company in 2005, according to public records.
In a statement, Scott Anderson, director of marketing at Mothers Lounge, called the outreach “heartfelt.”
Why had these women received the mailings? “The qualified recipients for this mailer have, at one point, subscribed to an opt-in list for maternity deals and coupons through a third party marketing company,” Anderson said. “All information from third party companies is only used internally for Mothers Lounge and is not sold or used for anything else other than the direct marketing of Mothers Lounge.”
The initiative did not go over so well with some of the “qualified recipients.” Some women — the exact number who received the mailings is unknown — grew suspicious when they couldn’t find a return address. Additionally, many reported that when they tried calling the toll-free number on the cards, the line went unanswered.
And then there were the gifts themselves. “The gift card does ‘work,’ but you still owe a small amount for shipping,” Gette, a musician in Nashville, Tennessee, said. “You would have to enter your credit card number for that.”
This isn’t the first time the company has sent out these cards. In February, they set off enough alarm bells for the Surry County sheriff’s office in Virginia that it posted a “scam alert” on Facebook. But the next day, Capt. Jayson Crawley received a call from someone who said he was Ben Pierce from Mothers Lounge. Pierce told him the mailers were not fake but a “promotional advertisement.”
Gette said the marketing attempt was flawed in that it came off as “predatory.”
Although the advances in targeting of digital advertising allow marketers to better identify their audiences, such efforts are not always totally successful. Identifying nonpregnant women as pregnant seems about as unsuccessful as possible.
Eric Anderson, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, said that for decades companies have shared and sold consumer data for these purposes.
“Any time you buy something, you are allowing your name to be shared,” Anderson said. “It’s a quid pro quo — they share your information out to the pool, and by doing that, they get to request names themselves.”
Based on purchases, a company can make an assumption of attributes and interests of the customer in order to better target their product. The Mothers Lounge’s technique was unusual and in bad judgment, Anderson said.
“Of all the things you can target things on, this is on the list of things you should probably avoid,” he said.
The Better Business Bureau has given the company an F rating, according to a spokeswoman, and has published a warning about the company’s promotional mailings.
Halen Hall-Chisler’s letter was sent to her parents’ house in Marietta, Ohio. Last year Hall-Chisler, who is 26, had an abortion. That caused a rift in her relationship with her mother.
Receiving the congratulatory package made her feel uncomfortable. “It was a little scary,” said Hall-Chisler, who works in a doughnut shop in Portland, Maine. “Especially in my circumstance, it was addressed to me with a name I don’t normally go by, and not a lot of people know that is my first name.”
Claire Jiang, 24, said she had received a frantic text from her father asking if she was pregnant. Embarrassed, Jiang, who is an architect in New York, emphatically denied the accusation.
But she was nonetheless confused as to why she would have been on the mailing list. The only explanation, she thought, was that she had purchased a baby gift for a friend last year. But even then, she was not living at her parents’ address at the time.
Not nearly ready to start a family, Jiang was perplexed that she was the target demographic. Her first reaction was to say to her father: “Can you just throw them away? I don’t want to think about this.”
“What this is is a deceptive marketing practice,” said Ghamrawi, who planned to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. “What this company is doing is assuming highly sensitive, personal information about me in a really intrusive way.”
The company risked sending the letters to women who were dealing with infertility or who had recently had a miscarriage. There was the possibility, Ghamrawi said, for all manner of unintended consequences, including family violence.
“If you think about the implications, it’s really irresponsible,” Ghamrawi said.