That saucy, borderline NSFW email? It’s from your airline.


After booking her first JetBlue flight recently, Kathie Baker was stunned by the confirmation email.

“First dates can be a little awkward,” it declared. “But that seems impossible with someone like you. Just to be safe, let’s start with the basics.”

The airline then proceeded to describe its in-flight amenities:

“Favorite color: Blue

Favorite song: Leaving on a Jet Plane”

Relationship status: Single & ready to show you 85+ amazing destinations.”

“It was creepy,” says Baker, a translator who lives in Pittsburgh. “Almost stalkerish.”

The missive is part of a series of welcome messages sent to new customers. And it isn’t happening in a vacuum. Companies are struggling to find the right tone to take with their customers, particularly in the travel industry, which is having one of its most challenging summers in recent memory. The messages they send range from slick to robotic, and decoding them isn’t difficult.

JetBlue wasn’t done emailing Baker. The airline next offered to send her special deals, adding, “We can skip the mushy stuff and start delivering great offers to your inbox ASAP.” Sample subject line: “We’re all in! Are you?”

Baker wanted the emails, which she said were “in poor taste,” to stop. I contacted JetBlue on her behalf. The next day, the airline fell silent. “With any luck, they have permanently ceased sending these emails to me,” Baker says.

Perhaps. JetBlue’s confirmations are part of a series of marketing emails that all new passengers receive when they buy a ticket, and unless Baker opts out of future emailings, it is likely that she will see more like them.

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“We went with the unique approach to drive engagement and understand customer preferences, while introducing customers to the brand,” says JetBlue spokesman Morgan Johnston. “As you’ve no doubt seen over the years, JetBlue has a long history of fresh, witty, fun, inclusive and occasionally tongue-in-cheek marketing.”

To be fair, some customers approve of the tone. Bilal Kaiser, who teaches digital marketing in Los Angeles, recently received a JetBlue email with the subject line: “Fares from $59 — we literally couldn’t fare less!”

“Hilarious,” he says. “Made me open the email even though I wasn’t planning to travel anywhere at that moment.”

That’s a sentiment Jean Tang, owner of a New York copywriting agency, seconds. JetBlue’s irreverent dispatches “leverage a familiar construct, create instant intimacy, and they’re funny as heck,” she says. “And they’re well written.”

But this summer, is witty prose enough? This hasn’t been an easy travel season. Lines are long. Prices are high. Tempers are flaring. Is an informal love letter from a travel company going to make everything right?

Jay Baer says there’s a lot at stake. Finding the correct words might mean the company gets to keep you. In his latest book, “Hug Your Haters,” he found that simply answering a complaint was enough to keep seven in 10 customers.


“After all, no answer is an answer,” he says. “It’s an answer that says, ‘We don’t care about you as a customer at all.’ ”

Instead of trying to cozy up to a customer and potentially making some of them feel uncomfortable, most successful companies deliver more standard and predictable responses to any troubles that may arise, says Marilyn Suttle, co-author of “Taming Gladys! The Busy Leader’s Guide to Creating Fierce Customer Loyalty.”

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Rather than saying, “I’m sorry if you were upset,” which only aggravates the passenger because it’s obvious they’re already upset, it’s better to say, “I’m so sorry you were unhappy with your experience,” she says.

Experts say that the correct, and prompt, mix can make the difference between the right words and ones that fall flat.

“Sincerity is crucial,” says Taylor Davis, a manager at Litmus, an email analytics firm based in Cambridge, Mass. “Especially if you’re apologizing. You never want your customers to feel like they are talking to a robot. A simple way for customer service teams to remain sincere is by adding a human element and style when communicating with customers. They should feel like they’re having a comfortable conversation.”

The line between comfortable and overly casual is easy to cross. Consider Spirit Airlines’ promotional emails, which have been heavily criticized for a lighthearted tone laced with sexual innuendo. For example, during the sexting scandal of then-Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) in 2011, the airline infamously launched a “Weiner Sale” with fares — direct quote here — “too hard to resist.” Some of its other promotions are so risqué they can’t even be described euphemistically without offending readers of this publication.

Double entendres aren’t limited to airlines. The Modern Honolulu hotel’s award-winning “Friends With Benefits” guest loyalty program, for instance, provocatively invites guests to come back by saying, “We’ve always got room in our beds for another friend.”

Here’s the problem: Although promotional pitches may be amusing or suggestive, the travel companies’ side of individual email conversations with customers usually is of the cut-and-paste style, delivered mechanically and dispassionately. When a company initiates a conversation — as it did with Baker, the JetBlue customer — it’s amusing and engaging. When you start the conversation, not so much.

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And, of course, words aren’t always enough. If something has gone wrong, nothing says “I’m sorry” like a refund or a ticket credit.

This summer, travelers’ expectations aren’t that high. They want a relatively problem-free experience, don’t want to spend too long waiting in line and — if possible — they’d like their luggage to travel with them. They’d prefer not to pay too many fees and not to get service with a snarl.

It would be a good start for travel companies to devote even half the time they do working up their unsolicited email messages on answering customers with empathy and humanity.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • Ben

    > Almost stalkerish.

    Seriously?

  • I would have laughed if those JetBlue emails were sent to me.

  • Jeff W.

    I cannot see how the JetBlue emails are NSFW or inappropriate in any way. Spirit, yes, but JetBlue, no.

    Ms. Baker just bought her first ticket on JetBlue. So the e-mail is not unsolicited. You buy any product online and you will definitely start receiving messages. And since she is a first time customer, JetBlue wants to tell her all of the other benefits/features the airline has to offer/sell her. The e-mail probably also had other information regarding what to expect when flying that airline — since it would be new to her as a first time customer.

    JetBlue is trying to create a memorable message here. This is a quirky fun message that shows the “humanity” of that airline. JetBlue is not poster child of bad behavior in airlines.

  • sirwired

    Maybe it wasn’t as professional and formal as she would have preferred, but “creepy”? “stalker-ish”? “Borderline NSFW”? Somebody needs a thicker skin… as long as included photos don’t look like they came from a Hooters ad, I’m pretty sure she’s safe with HR.

    On responding to complaint e-mails: The Passive Voice “I’m sorry if you were upset”? When I get that, it makes me angrier. Either apologize “I’m sorry we upset you” or don’t “I understand your position, but we followed our policy.” But don’t pretend to be sympathetic, but disclaim your company had anything to do with it.

    On another note… “saucy”… I See What You Did There…

  • BubbaJoe123

    NSFW? That B6 email would have been SFW if you worked in a convent.

  • Mel65

    Lighten.Up. Yeesh. It’s an email that for her hit the wrong note, but calling it creepy and almost stalkerish? C’mon. I wish I had the time on my hands to get so bent out of shape about silly things. Delete. Let Go. Move On.

  • MarkKelling

    I don’t see where a Hooters ad with pictures would be NSFW. The workers at Hooters wear more clothing than many people you see walking down the street on a summer day.

  • Harold Hauser

    It’s ridiculous how somebody will always take offense at an attempt to be humorous. One person’s humor is always somebody else’s offense.

  • Tricia K

    Im curious if we split the voting into men and women if the response would be the same, at least in regard to this particular letter from Jet Blue. I don’t know that I would have been quite as upset as this woman was, but given some of things women deal with in the work place and in their daily lives, it’s a touchy area for some. Simply parking in an underground garage puts women on high alert for potential attackers (not all women, but most do). Add to that the clod in the office who thinks he is being cute with some very inappropriate advances towards a female coworker. It doesn’t take too many of these experiences before something like the letter from Jet Blue goes in the same category.

  • Travelnut

    I thought it was hilarious. I’ll fly you, Jet Blue. Call me. ;)

  • Bill___A

    Although I don’t like that sort of marketing, I wouldn’t make a big deal out of it.

  • Lindabator

    honestly – some people need to get a life!

  • Lindabator

    that’s just ridiculous – people need to really grow up and start taking everything so overly serious!

  • FQTVLR

    When I was a junior in college I was brutally assaulted in a mall parking garage near the university I attended. I spent over a week in the hospital recovering from surgery and a couple broken bones. I have never entered another parking garage again when I am by myself in the nearly 40 years since this happened.
    And I have received the same email from Jet Blue in my work account. I howled with laughter and shared it with colleagues, both female and male. All, regardless of age, thought it was funny. And by no stretch of the imagination would I put it in the same category as what I endured in that parking garage all these years ago. To lump a silly entertaining email into the same category as assault and sexual harassment is rather insulting to me.

  • DepartureLevel

    They’re always trying to be funny (SWA, Jet Blue), etc. when they are not. Stop acting like a comedy team or vaudeville act and just be what you are, AN AIRLINE. What a concept – not everyone wants or needs a Disney “experience”.

  • mbods2002

    Well, looks like I’m in the minority as to the “cuteness” of these emails. I totally see where getting an intimately sweet, silly email from Jet Blue would creep someone out. I think it’s weird, but of course I would, I have no sense of humor. Personally, I don’t WANT airlines (or any business) to be cutesy with me, or intimate or my friend. I just want good service and product for the money I spend. Now remember I’m not able to “lighten up” or “get a life” as I live with the curse of being…serious, ha! I’ll never forget being a Virgin Mobile customer…. What an oh so hipster cool recorded message that went on and on that never directed me to a real person. Now, can we talk about meteorologists and newscasters on TV who want to be our friends and moral guidance? Here’s my favorite, “On your way to church this morning, don’t forget your umbrella!” WHAT?? Oh, sorry, that doesn’t really go with the theme of this story…Thank you

  • LonnieC

    “Stalkerish”?? Oh come on. We’re all so sensitive, and constantly looking for political correctness, that we’ve lost our sense of humor. I’d certainly rather see a clever ad, even if a little off the mark, than see the same boring, repetitive, junk we see over and over again. At least they’re trying. Lighten up.

  • LonnieC

    I’m terribly sorry you had that terrible experience. And I’m really glad it didn’t ruin your sense of humor. Good for you.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    I like fun marketing too. So long as the unsubscribe link is functional for those who don’t, I don’t have a problem with cute solicitations.

  • pauletteb

    Ms. Baker has a problem, and it ISN’T the e-mails!

  • pauletteb

    This female finds Baker’s response ridiculous in any context.

  • El Dorado Hills

    I would appreciate it if someone would please tell me what NSWF means. I am trying to learn all these acronyms. Some are pretty obvious or common, but this one looses me. Thank you.

  • Rebecca

    Don’t you wish you also had nothing better to do than actually read an entire promotional email and follow up not only with the company, but with a consumer advocate, with a complaining critique? Then, instead of simply clicking “unsubscribe”, enlist said consumer advocate to personally request they stop sending promotional emails? I sure do.

  • Rebecca

    Not safe for work

    I didn’t know either, so I googled it. I guess we’re old!!!

  • Chris Johnson

    Since the emails are “mass produced” and not specifically written to me, it wouldn’t creep me out. I just ignore nonsense like that in an email, focus on the crucial information (confirm #, flight times and seat info) and get on with my life. I hardly think the marketing staff at any airline has the time or resources to go stalking people.

  • Mel65

    Exactly! Now if it started with “Hey Mel, you’re looking lovely in that pink dress….” THEN I’d be a little creeped out!

  • El Dorado Hills

    Thanks. Not sure what “safe for work” has to do with this story but at least I know what NSFW means.

  • Rebecca

    Me either. Thank you for letting me know I’m not the only one.

  • taxed2themax

    I think that as is with any large business, you need to decide your “tone” and how your chosen customer base will view or take that. JetBlue has always been on the less-conventional side.. and with that comes with some potential upside and some potential downside.. I just think that B6 will always make some happy and some upset.. that’s just the way it is..

    But.. rightly or wrongly, B6 has found and chosen their ‘culture’ and that is reflected in their internal operations and externally in terms of how they present themselves…

    I don’t think she’s off base — it’s just that this ‘style’ doesn’t sit well with her.. that’s fine.. JetBlue has their style — she has hers.. perhaps they are just not the best fit.. that doesn’t make either one wrong.. just not the best fit.

  • Steve Rabin

    I remember a really good ‘suggestive’ ad. When Virgin Atlantic was starting to fly to San Francisco years ago, their tag line on their advertising was “More experience than our name suggests”.

  • Tracy Larson

    I thought it was “Not Suitable For Work” – meaning that it is not something you would want your coworkers or boss to see or hear.

  • joycexyz

    I don’t find those JetBlue emails out of line. But then I’m a fan of JetBlue. And addressing a different issue–the aggravating non-apology apology. The worst is having the customer (dis)service agent say “I’m sorry you feel that way,” as if it’s my fault for being annoyed. Makes me think a lawyer decided that a spokesperson expressing sympathy somehow opens the company up for a lawsuit. Don’t they realize that genuine empathy can de-escalate the situation?

  • Tim Mengelkoch

    NSFW…also means Not Safe For Women

  • AAGK

    I hope jet blue at least called her the next morning. :)

  • AAGK

    You know he was making a larger point. Hooters is a bad tasting wings place but is a convenient analogy for overall bad taste so was used well here.

  • AAGK

    What if this lady is single and on a dating site and JetBlue did target its marketing accordingly. I get she’s projecting but, while not stalkerish, that could feel intrusive. We know all the companies do it these days. It is totally possible married customers received certain solicitations, customers with certain income received others. Big brother stuff is commonplace but it would be in poor form of JB if it used something potentially embarrassing for its cutesy advertising.

  • AAGK

    I just had to google it also.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    Then she can vote with her feet, unsubscribe, block their email address, and never hear from them again.

  • AAGK

    I agree. Her reaction seems so over the top, I do wonder to what extent there is some personalization, not to her specifically but perhaps to her category.

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