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Secret Messages are Fun In Movies But They Are Hurting Your Marketing

It is the best part of a spy movie and the most terrifying part of a horror flick.

You see a secret message slowly appear seemingly out of thin air or discover the hidden information that is the key to triumph. As beloved as the secret message trope is, it doesn’t belong in your marketing.

I’ve written before about dark patterns on websites and why you shouldn’t use them. But today I’m homing in on one specific pattern today because it is one I see ALL THE TIME. I bet you have too.

Let Me Tell You a Story

Last week on Friday I was sorting through my inbox getting ready for a nice weekend and I opened a welcome email for something I didn’t remember subscribing to. I know that you aren’t supposed to open emails that you don’t recognize. Normally I don’t but I also occasionally sign up for a freebie and forget where it came from.

I looked through the email, realized that even if I had subscribed it was definitely not something I would read. So I scrolled to the bottom and…saw nothing. No standard unsubscribe/you are receiving this email because of/or address. Now, I know that according to the CAN-SPAM Act those things are all required. Any email service provider that is legit will require you to include them in any email you send out. So I pulled my mouse up, clicked, and highlighted the entire bottom section. Sure enough, there it was: white text on a white background. 

Accessibility aside this is a great way to get yourself in serious trouble.

As I mentioned above most ESPs require you to include all of the CAN-SPAM required info. If you get too many people marking your email as spam (which they will if they can’t unsubscribe) your ESP is likely to lock your account until they figure out why. If they catch you doing that they may suspend your account indefinitely.

On top of that, the FTC which is responsible for enforcing the CAN-SPAM ACT has clearly said you must “Tell recipients how to opt-out of receiving future email from you. Your message must include a clear and conspicuous explanation of how the recipient can opt-out of getting email from you in the future. Craft the notice in a way that’s easy for an ordinary person to recognize, read, and understand.”

This tactic falls under the “hidden information” dark pattern

Marketers often employ this to “encourage” people to take a certain action. Using the same or similar colored font and background is called “visual interference”. I see it a lot in emails but also on One Time Offer or Upsell pages. In those cases, the decline link is hidden somewhere under the large brightly colored BUY button. The decline “button” is almost never a button. Instead, it is a text link that is almost the same color as the background. It’s also small enough to be easily missed. 

As with most dark patterns, there has been a lot of time, effort, and even money dumped into getting them the highest ROI. In fact, as an article in the Journal of Legal Analysis points out “The apparent proliferation of dark patterns in e-commerce suggests that they were effective in getting consumers to do things they might not otherwise do, and we now have produced rather solid evidence that this is the case. Paradoxically, it appears that relatively subtle dark patterns are most dangerous because they sway large numbers of consumers without provoking the level of annoyance that will translate into lost goodwill.” In other words, they get just enough people to do what they want, without irritating enough people to lose revenue or get bad press.


Like most dark patterns this one is rapidly becoming the target of laws and regulations. This one is coming under fire particularly because it comes up so much in email marketing. People might not really notice if it’s hard to find a “no thanks” button on a website. They definitely notice spam swallowing up their inbox. 

The U.S. Senate proposed the  Deceptive Experiences To Online Users Reduction (DETOUR) Act in 2019. California began targeting dark patterns in 2018 as part of the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA). In the European Union, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) specifies that “the fact of using and abusing a strategy to divert attention or dark patterns can lead to invalidating consent” according to an article on

And of course like most dark patterns I’ve highlighted. It’s not really about the regulations. I mean sure, no one wants to be fined, deal with the FTC, or have their website shut down. But the root of dark patterns is they focus more on the sale than on the person. Even though a lot of marketing influencers might call it “psychology of sales” or use it as a quick tip to increase conversions, it’s slimy. 

No one likes feeling taken advantage of and no one wants to admit that they may have participated in something not quite on the level. But I encourage you to take a look at your emails and newsletters, put fresh eyes on your website and make sure you aren’t using this (or any) dark patterns. 

The best way to eradicate this practice is to stop doing it, to make it unusual, easy to spot, and not worth it. 

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