These People Didn’t Know They Were Pregnant. Shutterfly Knew Better.

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A blog about business and economics.
May 14 2014 5:27 PM

These People Didn’t Know They Were Pregnant. Shutterfly Knew Better.

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This morning I awoke to a surprise in my inbox: an email from photo service Shutterfly congratulating me on my new arrival. "There's nothing more amazing than bringing a new life into the world," it read. "As a new parent you're going to find more to love, more to give and more to share—we're here to help you every step of the way." Thoughtful. There's just one problem: I don't have a new baby.

As it turns out, I was far from the only one to receive this message. Shutterfly sparked a wave of shock, confusion, and outrage on Wednesday when it accidentally blasted out a promotion for baby thank you cards to the wrong users. "Our intention was to target customers who have recently purchased birth announcements with us, and it was sent to a larger distribution in error," Nicole Stier, a spokeswoman for Shutterfly, said in an email. "We deeply apologize for this intrusion and any offense this may have caused." She declined to specify how many people received the message in total.

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Some users responded to the email faux pas with amusement.

Others were more baffled.

And for many, the mistake hit a raw nerve. "As someone who is unable to have kids your spam congratulating me 'on my new arrival' was highly offensive," one user wrote on Twitter. "[Y]ou messed up. BIG...Mother's Day was bad enough... Talk about salt in the wound," chimed in another. Shutterfly's Twitter feed has been in high gear all day cranking out apologies to hurt and rankled users.

Shutterfly's error is just the latest reminder of how closely companies and advertisers are tracking everything about our personal lives. In 2012, a father marched into Target and demanded an explanation of why the store had been mailing his teenage daughter coupons for baby products. "Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?" he asked. It turned out that she already was—Target had just figured it out first.

The scary thing is that creepily knowledgeable ads like Target's are the norm these days. Just last month, Janet Vertesi, a sociology professor at Princeton, published the results of her months-long attempt to hide her pregnancy from big data. She and her husband hushed all mention of the news on social media, used Tor for all online baby-related orders, and made as many purchases as possible in cash. Vertesi said it made her look like a criminal. But those are the lengths you have to go to these days to keep the Internet from knowing that you're expecting.

Alison Griswold is a Slate staff writer covering business and economics.

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