Hall of Shame: Deceptive Email Subject Lines

“Happy Birthday!” read the subject line. The hero image was a bunch of balloons with a CTA to the brand’s website to “celebrate by [performing desired action].” Before I got to the body copy I knew I’d been had.

I’ve never unsubscribed faster in my life.

To top things off, it wasn’t even my birthday. So I got upset, drafted this article on my phone during my lunch break, and dug it up a few weeks later to get my revenge the best way I know how: by putting all the deceptive email subject lines I see on blast.

In this article, I’m putting annoying headlines on the stand for their crimes against the sanctity of my inbox, the last haven from advertisements and clickbait. I’ll list them all up front, and then further into the article I will devote time to explaining why each one is awful and I hate it.

So here’s the worst culprits, in no particular order:

  • RE: [an email that doesn’t exist for them to be referencing]
  • URGENT: [something not urgent or relevant]
  • I’ve been trying to contact you
  • Steven, your [something I never expressed interest in] is ready
  • Low cost [product or service]

RE: [an email that doesn’t exist]

The ole reply to an email that was never sent in the first place. I have a special hatred for this one, because it’s trying to make me feel guilty. The writer of this headline wants me to think that I left someone hanging long enough that they are emailing me again.

Even if I had sent someone an email and neglected to reply for that long, I’d be a little annoyed by the passive-aggressive followup. This headline holds a special place in the Hall of Shame.

URGENT: [something not urgent or relevant]

Slapping urgent in front of a message is a great way to activate my skeptical reflex. This one usually goes straight to the spam box, but sometimes one gets through the filters and I’m forced to tread into the actual body of the email. What a sight: me with my Sherlock-style spyglass, doing some deducin’ with a grimace that says I wish I weren’t.

By the time I’ve sussed out the crime, it’s too late. I’m covered in gunky spam sauce. And all for something that wasn’t even relevant to me, much less urgent.

I’ve been trying to contact you

This one’s not slick at all. If they’d been trying to contact me, I’d probably know about it. And this would be a rude subject line even if they had been trying to contact me. So it’s not going to win any points from me.


Just no.

Steven, your [something I never expressed interest in] is ready

This one is delivered with the peppy familiarity of a barista who’s having a good day and remembers you from last time you were there because you talked about anime with them for five minutes since the shop was slow.

The problem is, the thing that’s ready for me is usually something that I had no clue existed. Or I shouldn’t have had to wait for because that’s strange when it could have been an instant download. It’s usually not a customized file they’re sending either, just a generic offer to download something in most cases.

Low cost [product or service]

By starting with low cost, I’m assuming the company selling this to me is either:

  • Shady
  • Scamming people
  • Inferior product

Even a brand competing on low cost knows better than to use the phrase “low cost” so cavalierly. Typically, companies lean into words like “cheap” or “bargain,” or they go for the spruced up synonyms like “affordable” or “reasonable.”


Avoid these subject lines. Or you’ll end up in the Hall of Shame. It’s miserable here, trust me. You’d hate it, and your company would too.

Instead, try personalizing your subject lines and leading with a benefit of your product. Or lead with the customer’s problem that they can solve using your product or service.

Whatever you do, just don’t be pushy or spammy.

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