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Is Your Email Subject Line Creative... or Deceptive?

by DJ Waldow  |  
April 19, 2013

"It is unlawful for any person to initiate the transmission to a protected computer of a commercial electronic mail message if such person has actual knowledge, or knowledge fairly implied on the basis of objective circumstances, that a subject heading of the message would be likely to mislead a recipient...regarding the contents or subject matter of the message..."

How's that for some legalese? That's the actual language from the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 (PDF), the law that establishes the rules for commercial email in the United States.

I'm not an attorney, but the intent of that language seems quite clear to me. Put in non-Franken-speak, it can be boiled down to this: Don't send an email with a deceptive subject line.

However, like many laws, it's all about interpretation.

So where does the line get drawn between a creative, compelling email subject line and one that is deceptive (and possibly illegal)?

An interesting conversation has been going on among email marketing folks lately around this very topic. I've argued that there is power in a compelling subject line: If you want people to open your emails, your subject line has to stand out in their (likely crowded) inbox.

That's not to say a "boring" subject line can't also be effective. My colleague Chris Penn proves that point with his weekly newsletter, the subject line of which reads, "Almost Timely News from @cspenn for [date]." The only part of his subject lines that changes week to week is the date, and his open rates have been hovering around 13%.

But a creative, compelling subject line certainly can get your attention. Urban Outfitters is one of my favorite examples. YOLO OMG WTF Sale! was the subject line of a recent email it sent to its list. (Read about more "crazy" subject lines.).

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DJ Waldow is an email marketing consultant, writer, blogger, speaker, founder and CEO of Waldow Social, and co-author of The Rebel's Guide to Email Marketing.

Twitter: @djwaldow

LinkedIn: DJ Waldow

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  • by Randy Fri Apr 19, 2013 via iphone

    Better be creative! The only emailers that deceive are spammers. All e-communications are governed by laws. For a Canadian update, down load our free eGuide and learn about $1 million/day fines...

  • by Andrew Marino, BannerDirect Fri Apr 19, 2013 via web

    This was a really interesting article, DJ. I have a couple of questions:
    1. if the Oxfam subject line was deceptive, how likely is it that the company could face CAN-SPAM prosecution?
    2. Was the "deceptive" element nullified because Aziz "comes clean" about being deceptive right up front?
    3. It seems that there are degrees of deception that are allowable. How deceptive must a subject line be to be out of CAN SPAM Compliance?

  • by DJ Waldow Fri Apr 19, 2013 via web

    Andrew: Thanks for your kind words. To answer your questions ...

    1. I am not sure. Great question. That's one to ask an attorney. Ha! Sorry.
    2. Another great question. I don't think it takes away from the deception of the SUBJECT LINE, but it sure "softens" the blow, so to speak.
    3. Again, better question to ask an attorney. Sorry! I'll see if I can get some of my email compliance colleagues to weigh in here.

  • by Andrew Marino, BannerDirect Fri Apr 19, 2013 via web

    Thanks for getting back to me, DJ--would love to hear what the attorneys say!

    Here are a few other questions on Subject LInes--which you may rather explore in a different blog rather than attempt to answer here:

    - Is the word "Free" still a spam-flag?
    - What about the dollar symbol?
    - I've been seeing a lot of special characters (little airplanes and hearts and things)--which get my attention for a split second before I hit delete.

    What are your thoughts about those? Do they work? Are there any CAN-SPAM Compliance issues with them?

  • by DJ Waldow Fri Apr 19, 2013 via web

    Andrew: You are welcome! I've "put the word out" to my attorney friends. Fingers crossed.

    To answer your questions:

    1. No.
    2. No.
    3. Email me and I'll send you a few blog posts about special characters. Bronto wrote a great one. djwaldow at

  • by Cristina Sierra Fri Apr 19, 2013 via web

    Great article - I think if you get too close to the "deceptive" side you risk alienating your audience. There's nothing more annoying than opening an email based on what you think it contains only to be completely off base and feel as though someone is wasting your time. I wrote a subject line "Are You a Bad Aunt / Uncle?" as my site is geared towards uncles / aunts / busy people who don't have time to buy gifts for the kids in their life.

  • by DJ Waldow Tue Apr 23, 2013 via web

    Thanks for your kind words Cristina. Love that "Bad Aunt / Uncle" subject line!

  • by michelle Sat May 11, 2013 via web

    If you are talking deception, how is it that you are giving 20% off for new members? You said," the site is absolutely FREE". Please explain

  • by Vahe, MarketingProfs Sat May 11, 2013 via web

    Hi, Michelle.

    If I haven't misunderstood your comment, then I take it that you're referring to MarketingProfs membership.

    The MarketingProfs site is certainly free: You don't have to pay to access it, and a vast part of its contents is freely available to Basic members (people who've provided us their email address and have received login information).

    We also have a PRO membership level, which is paid membership that grants access to online seminars, video tutorials, guides and reports, and online tools. See here for additional information:

    I hope that answers your question. Thanks for asking.

  • by Email Monks Thu Jun 13, 2013 via web

    Very nicely said DJ. There is a thin line of difference between the deceptive and creative subject lines. As mentioned by you, linking the subject line to the content in the email body will make it more appealing and a reader might trust you, the next time you send such email. Using most modern techniques like unicodes and symbols in the subject lines might itself make it creative rescuing the subject line from being deceptive. Email Monks has more to say about subject lines here:

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