The New York Times non-apology, and the end of lazy marketing language

Yesterday I received an email from the New York Times in which they told me, “Our records indicate that you recently requested to cancel your home delivery subscription.” They proceeded to use a phrase that bears an uncanny resemblance to something I told a girlfriend who dumped me when I was 15: “We do hope you’ll reconsider.”

Here’s the problem: I canceled my subscription 3 years ago. No big deal though, mistakes like this happen all the time. I hit the Archive button and forgot about it. But this morning I woke up to another email from the Times, this one with the subject line “CORRECTION: Important information regarding your subscription.” One of the paragraphs read as follows:

This e-mail was sent by us in error. Please disregard the message. We apologize for any confusion this may have caused.

I find passive voice non-apologies like this frustrating and insulting – worse than the original mistake, because it somehow manages to avoid taking responsibility for what happened. And it looks like I can finally move on from the idea that I’m the only one who feels this way. Here’s Clinton Forry:

And John Holdun:


In Subscribing to The New York Times, a post about the paper’s subscription pricing, Khoi Vinh alludes to a recurring pattern in their email communications:

In the run up to my subscription expiring, the company had been sending me promotions that were urgent in their warnings but exasperating in their vagueness. Each email was unequivocal about the number of days that remained in my subscription, but the renewal rates were only hinted at.

“Urgent in their warnings but exasperating in their vagueness.” That’s a great description.

This is a big deal. Content Strategy has become mainstream, and more and more businesses are finding out that it’s more effective to talk to their customers like real people (and get to the point quickly). Yet too many old school companies continue to speak to us in that patriarchal tone, assuming that since they clearly know what’s best for us we’ll just go ahead and click that “Buy now” button (if we can find it, because we’re not that smart you see). That’s why the Times didn’t just say this in their “apology” email:

Yesterday we made a mistake and sent you an incorrect email about your subscription. We’re sorry about that. You can delete the email.

The problem is that we’re starting to notice when we’re being talked down to. This has very real implications for marketing, where traditional slogans like “Your savings start here!” and “Unbeatable service!” lose their power to pull the wool over our eyes if they’re not backed up by something real. I recently lamented the laziness of the slogan “Everything you could ever want. And more. For less.” I wondered what it would cost for some happiness and a toilet made out of solid gold, because if you take that slogan at face value I should be able to get that, right?

The lesson to companies is simple: We’re smarter than you think. Be honest about the product or service you provide, and just say “sorry” when you made a mistake. We’ll love you for it.