Abby, a 65-year-old retiree living in Central Texas, was shocked when she received a letter addressed to her daughter Hallie. Inside the pink envelope, Abby found a purple card with an illustration of a halved avocado with a heart hovering inside its pit. “Holy guacamole!” the card said. “You’re going to avo baby!” The inscription was vague. “Congratulations!!!” someone had written in quick Sharpie. “I’m so excited for you! I hope you like these.” Signed, with a heart, Jenny B.
The congrats, which arrived in October, came with gift cards totaling $245 and hand-clipped coupons for maternity-centric companies. “Little Wanderers” looked like a shoe store for newborns, while “Udder Covers” appeared to sell nursing cover-ups. They were accessories a pregnant person could need.
The card looked real. Hallie mentored people through her Facebook community. Maybe it was someone Hallie was Facebook friends with? Or worse, maybe a Facebook friend of Hallie’s, this Jenny B., had been scammed by someone posing as her.
The return label looked like it had been ripped off, greatly decreasing the chance of Abby being able to return the gifts to the sender. So Abby and her husband turned to Facebook. They scoured Hallie’s friends list for anyone named Jenny B. No luck. Abby turned to Google next, thinking she could find Jenny online. She was bombarded by search results, including several from the Better Business Bureau. The BBB warned readers that these legitimate-looking cards—with seemingly missing return labels, bleedthrough ink, and hand-clipped coupons—were a marketing campaign.
At first, Abby was relieved. It’s just a scam, she felt, the cards were just a scam. And then, she got extremely mad.
“How dare they?” Abby told the Daily Dot. “They had no idea who they were speaking to.”
The company behind the card couldn’t have known whether Hallie was pregnant. Hallie died four years ago after a lifelong Ehlers-Danlos syndrome diagnosis. It’s a connective tissue disorder, its spectrum of symptoms ranging from loose joints and muscle fatigue to chronic pain and heart and lung problems. It took 10 years for doctors to diagnose her, Abby said, with some people not believing Hallie was sick despite her pain. She died on Oct. 11, 2015. She was 23.
October is a difficult month for Abby’s family—painful, she said. Every year, people post on Hallie’s Facebook to remember her. Abby tries to keep her memories of her daughter in the front of her mind during the month. How she was remarkable in her courage while in constant pain, and was always optimistic and hopeful. She was loving, funny, and giving to other people who were suffering. Receiving that card for a pregnancy that would never happen, during Abby’s month of mourning of her daughter, felt like an arrow through the heart.
“This is not just a PR blunder. This is tragic for people like me, just painful as hell… I just want them to understand how much pain they caused us personally,” Abby said. “I really couldn’t come up with any adjectives ‘cause it hurts so much. There’s no way this company could know, yes, but they didn’t even try to figure out if the people on their mailing list that they bought would be affected by this in a negative way.”
Abby isn’t alone in her hurt and confusion. As the Independent first reported in October, when social media users first started complaining about these cards, the letter is a marketing campaign from Utah-based company Mothers Lounge, co-founded by Jenny Bosco and her husband Kaleb Pierce in 2005. Its subsidiaries include the aforementioned shops Little Wanderers and Udder Covers, along with several other brands. The card campaign resulted in dozens of tweets, TikTok videos, and exchanges on Reddit posted by young women. Their reactions ranged anywhere from amused to concerned.
For most, the card didn’t amount to much more than an embarrassing moment with their parents and a brief opportunity to commiserate with other women online. Tens of people across social media platforms didn’t respond to the Daily Dot’s request for comment, and most who did simply shrugged off the card, saying it wasn’t that deep. But the reaction from the people interviewed, and of many who have posted warning others about the cards, indicates a growing concern among women to look out for one another amid increased scrutiny against predatory marketing practices.
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A quick Google search may have quelled most concerns. Mothers Lounge pulled a similar stunt in February when it sent out notes with $200 in gift cards signed by “Jen.” It caught the attention of a Virginia sheriff’s office, which verified that the cards were promotional materials linked to one Jeanette Pierce. (Mothers Lounge’s Amazon profile lists the owner as Jenny Pierce, not Bosco, as do other cached descriptions of the store around the internet.)
The information available might have been enough to snuff out a larger social media backlash—the Mothers Lounge Twitter account is bare, the Instagram page doesn’t have more than a username, and the Facebook account has a handful of posts from 2014 and 2015. What’s the use in calling out a company that doesn’t seem to be listening?
On TikTok, young women, some possibly still in their teens, shared videos of their confusion and fright as they showed off the suspicious mail, explaining that their parents had opened the cards for them—and that they’re not pregnant.
“Ummm, I’m not pregnant… So confused!” one caption said.
“Dude I got the same exact thing AFTER MY MISCARRIAGE,” another person commented.
On Twitter, shock from a poster was met with a thorough debunking by a friend who had already seen warnings about the gift cards. Women complained about the Jenny B. cards going to their parents’ addresses, despite having not lived there for years, and of having to convince their panicking parents that they weren’t pregnant. On Reddit, users said that relatives and roommates who are trans men received cards from Jenny B. addressed to their dead names. It’s unclear how many people received the mailer, but the stamps indicate they were processed via USPS as presorted standard, which requires at least 200 pieces for senders to qualify.
Kara from Alabama had posted excitedly about the kind stranger who might have been looking out for her. She tweeted that she had tried to get pregnant for years and found a card with almost $300 in gifts for her and her future child. She asked Twitter to help her find Jenny B. so she could thank her.
Kara told the Daily Dot that she was skeptical when she found the card in the mail. But it seemed genuine. The card was printed as if ink from the inside was bleeding through. Hours later Kara searched the phrase, “received gift cards but not pregnant from unknown person” and found out the truth. Even given her own circumstances, she was more concerned for the other people who could have been hurt by these cards.
“I personally wasn’t too emotionally bothered by it but I did think it was very scummy,” Kara said. “They could have sent that to a woman suffering from a miscarriage or anything.”
Another woman trying to get pregnant wasn’t as forgiving. She tagged the Mothers Lounge Facebook page in her admonishment of the company.
“As a woman who has been through being terrified of the difficulty getting pregnant, this was a kick in the f*cking uterus. It came at a time I was already battling other inner demons reemerging, I have been through painstakingly checking my ovulation schedules on apps and tests, wondering why it didn’t happen to me as easily as others I know…” she wrote in the post. “It was painful. Plain and simple….Pregnancy and conceiving is emotional to begin with. Thanks for the fake congratulations on being not pregnant, your advertising schemes are shit.”
Many other women felt similar anguish to Abby. They wrote posts about having to convince their parents that they weren’t hiding a pregnancy. Nichole, a student from Iowa, tweeted that she had opened the card in front of her family. Like other women criticizing the card online, she wasn’t pregnant. Nichole said that at first, she thought the card was a scam, then she asked her brother if he was playing a prank.
“Personally, I was worried about what my mom was thinking. A thousand thoughts ran through my head, such as ‘Is she going to believe me that I’m not actually pregnant?’ ‘Is she going to be disappointed?’ ‘How is this going to affect our relationship moving forward?’” Nichole said. “I’m close with my mom so I value her thoughts and opinions quite a bit.”
Abby described opening the card as a jolting punch to the gut, even before she found out it was a marketing effort. “Mindless marketing stuff” had come in the mail for Hallie before, Abby said, but this was different.
“I was the one that opened this thing, and it was jolting to say the least,” Abby said. “It was a gut punch because all of the pain of losing a daughter who was 23, never had a chance to get married, have children. You know what I’m saying? I mean it was gut-wrenching and so I didn’t know that it was a scam. All I was dealing with initially was the emotion of, ‘What the hell? Who sent this? Who is this?’
“[Hallie] had a boyfriend who was devoted to her despite everything she was going through. And she wanted to marry him and they wanted to have children. That fact just makes everything bittersweet with this mailing,” Abby continued. “She loved children. She’s just a very loving person in general. So it’s almost as if this marketer really knew how to stick it to us.”
The company sees its actions differently. In a statement to the New York Times in October, Mothers Lounge director of marketing Scott Anderson called the outreach “heartfelt” and said that the company had sent the mailers to people who had opted in for maternity deals through a third party.
“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 told the Times. “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.”
Abby herself questioned how Mothers Lounge would have gotten her address to send the mailer to Hallie, as her daughter had never resided at the address where she and her husband live now. She feels the company didn’t do a thorough enough job to verify the third-party information.
It’s common for companies to use deceptive mailing practices to better engage consumers or voters. Internet and cable companies stamp their envelopes with phrases such as “notice,” “last chance,” “electronic service requested,” and “second attempt” to get recipients to give their would-be junk mail a second thought. Entire marketing companies provide services for creating identical hand-written materials en masse.
Even politicians stand by the practice despite its intent to mislead. Last year, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) received an onslaught of criticism after his reelection campaign sent a donation request to voters that appeared to be a legal summons. Aside from the sketchy nature of the tactic, these kinds of mailers usually have a company or entity’s logo on the envelope. The Jenny B. cards from Mothers Lounge carried no transparency.
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Even with good intentions, the ethics of launching a mass marketing campaign with several indicators of a personalized card from a kind stranger, instead of a company’s honest invitation to try out its products, are questionable. Wally Snyder, executive director of the Institute for Advertising Ethics and former president and CEO of the American Advertising Federation, told the Daily Dot that the institute urges companies to be transparent in their advertising. He said that the realistic smudges on the Jenny B. card and the failure to accurately disclose the card as a marketing ad showed little effort toward transparency.
Snyder said that transparency shouldn’t just extend to the intention of marketing campaigns but also in telling consumers how much their products and services will cost. Several of the online complaints about the Mothers Lounge gift cards mentioned that shipping for one product was unreasonably high and couldn’t be covered with the gift cards. For example, at one of the stores where Mothers Lounge provided a gift card, a $29.95 pair of baby booties comes with an additional $13.96 fee for economy shipping fee to Austin. While the gift card for that store covers $60, shoppers must use their own payment method to complete the purchase. At another store, purchasing a $34.95 nursing cover with the mailed $35 gift card would still cost $14.92 with economy shipping.
“[Transparency] has become a major issue in the law and in ethics, so the consumers are able to make a reasonable decision as to whether or not to go forward,” Snyder said.
It’s unclear what, if anything, will result from Mothers Lounge’s thoughtlessness. According to CBS News, the Better Business Bureau said it received more than 95 reports about the marketing scheme in early November.
The Daily Dot reached out to Anderson, the marketing director for Mothers Lounge, multiple times and requested an interview with Jenny (Bosco or Pierce, it’s still unclear) that went unanswered. Jenny herself seems to exist in some form, at least online. A post from June 2017 on the Mothers Lounge blog introduces Jenny B. with some fun facts and discloses she’s a mother of five. It reads that she’s “not one for the spotlight” but that she “built this brand from the ground up.” She’s mentioned again by full name only in the “about us” description, but her advice is seemingly sprinkled throughout the blog.
No articles or interviews featuring Jenny B. come up in searches of her name variations. One online forum from a decade ago alludes to some fighting between Kaleb Pierce and alleged former customers at other websites. (The complaint is not linked here since it seems Kaleb and Jenny were doxed at the time.) Jenny declined the Daily Dot’s request to follow her private Instagram account.
Abby said she kept the card and was mulling over who to report it to. But it upsets her too much to try and contact anyone at Mothers Lounge over the marketing campaign. She said she wished she had the courage to go after the company herself and wants it to go out of business. And while she does have a message for them (“What the hell were you thinking? And fuck you. Fuck you very much.”) she’d rather not dwell on the card. It hurts too much.
“[Phone scams] don’t bother me as much, because I can just not answer the phone. Credit cards have been compromised many times, so we can just have it down to routine. You pick up the phone, you cancel the credit card, right? You get a new one, no damage. No physical note, no psychological, no economical. This was different,” Abby said. “I mean, they didn’t get a dime, but boy, they, they damaged my spirit and my soul. It hurt. So that’s why I think about it a lot.”