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A Shoppers Drug Mart in Toronto. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)
A Shoppers Drug Mart in Toronto. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

PERSUASION NOTEBOOK

Shoppers Drug Mart will help you escape the zombie hordes! (But not officially) Add to ...

Persuasion Notebook offers quick hits on the business of persuasion from The Globe and Mail’s marketing and advertising reporter, Susan Krashinsky. Read more on The Globe’s marketing page and follow Susan on Twitter @Susinsky .

Shoppers Drug Mart is investigating unauthorized humour in its ranks.

A customer service email from the company, posted online over the weekend, is bringing praise from the person who received it, but causing confusion at the retailer. On Wednesday, Andrew Gardner, a Toronto software, developer posted a letter he received from Shoppers Drug Mart’s customer service team on his Google Plus page – which had some fun pretending it was sent from a weird, nightmarish future world. But while Mr. Gardner was delighted, it does not appear everyone at the company was in on the joke.

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It was in response to an email Mr. Gardner sent last Tuesday about mail he was receiving at his home from the company, addressed to someone named Matthew who does not live there. In his note, he joked that perhaps “Matthew is a future resident of this address, and seemingly against the laws of causation, your computer system has this information, and prematurely mailed an advertisement to him before he’s actually lived here.”

Mr. Gardner wrote to the company that he had a number of questions about the future.

“If it turns out the course of history is indeed pliable, not fixed, then we can maybe avoid future disasters and get a real taste of utopia in a mere matter of years. This would, all in all, be very favourable press for the Shoppers Drug Mart brand, and would definitely allow citizens like me to overlook the fact that the word ‘drug’ is in your name,” he wrote.

Here is the reply he received May 30:

Hello Andrew, Thank you for writing us. We apologize if you have been receiving mail from Shoppers Drug Mart that was addressed to another customer. Unfortunately, we cannot comment on any research projects that we may currently be conducting. However, we would appreciate it if you could provide us with some additional information that would help us determine when the mailer you received was sent. Could you please let us know if it contained any of the following advertisements?

1) Now at Shoppers Drug Mart: Everexis Cure any disease instantly with Everexis! Great for headaches, colds, cancer and more! With no known side effects, nothing can possibly go wrong!

2) 20X The Points on Meat Products Got the Everexis munchies? Fill your strange and unspeakable hunger and get 20X The Points!

3) 20 per cent Off Everexis Antidote Everexis left you slow, lumbering, and quick to anger? Take the Everexis antidote. It hasn’t been fully tested, but it certainly can’t make things any worse!

4) Hide in a Shoppers Drug Mart Refugee Shelter With over 1,200 locations still standing across Canada, Shoppers Drug Mart is the ideal place to hold up and hide from the [horde]. Ration Nativa Cheese Puffs and Life Brand Vitamins while you wait for rescue! Blood samples will be required for admittance.

5) Wheat, Glorious Wheat Exclusively at Shoppers Drug Mart! Rebuild society with wheat, a traditional non-synthetic foodstuff from the before-times. Act fast, as quantities are extremely limited.

If you did not see any of these promotions, please disregard this message. We will simply update our customer database. As our mailers are often sent out in advance, you may still receive additional mail over the next few weeks. We appreciate your patience while the update is processed.

Regards,
Shoppers Drug Mart Customer Service

“I was taken aback, because it’s genuinely funny. I’ve been telling everybody, it’s the best customer service I’ve ever gotten,” Mr. Gardner said in an interview on Wednesday.

It’s also completely out of step with the company’s usual communications strategy. When Shoppers Drug Mart let rapper Drake into its stores to film a video released earlier this year, the company’s sense of humour was challenged with fictional scenes of employees misbehaving, neglecting work, and flirting with customers. So much so, that its communications team seemed eager to distance themselves from the free exposure.

Asked to verify the email from the future, the company seemed a bit taken aback as well.

“It is an interesting twist but we are checking into the validity as it is obviously inconsistent with what our tone and content in a response would be to this concern,” Tammy Smitham, Shoppers vice-president of communications and corporate affairs, said in an e-mail. “So, we are investigating the origin of the response.”

Companies have discovered that with customers talking about them constantly on social media, having a sense of humour can pay off. In Samsung’s case last year, that meant sending a cartoon drawing of a kangaroo (and a free phone) to a customer. Now, in addition to cartoonist, should communications teams add science fiction writer to their list of skills?

Shoppers doesn’t seem so sure.

Mr. Gardner said he received a call from the company on Wednesday, apologizing for the email, saying they would “never sign off on something like that.” He said they also told him they are looking into who sent it.

He assured the company no apology was necessary, and added that he declined the company’s requests for information about the email, explaining that he did not want the person to get in trouble.

“I hope that this is never discouraged,” Mr. Gardner said. “I know going off party line is risky… but I hope it doesn’t get anybody in trouble.”

On Wednesday evening, Ms. Smitham sent word that a customer service representative at the company "admitted" to being behind the email.

"We empower our customer service agents to make decisions on how they respond to customer concerns in a respectful way everyday," she wrote. "In this case, seeing the tone of the customer's email, the customer service agent decided to have some fun with his response. While his response may not have appealed to everyone, we are glad that Andrew took it in the same light hearted way in which it was crafted. At the end of the day Andrew is a more satisfied customer (which makes us happy) and we have a few more product and campaign ideas for the future."

Once the issue was resolved, Shoppers decided to cautiously wade into the fun with a message on its official Twitter account Wednesday evening:

"@ShopprsDrugMart: The 1st of 20 people to tweet a fav customer service moment wins a bag of Nativa Organics Cheese Puffs, for the after effects of Everexis."

A Toronto writer named Mark Oliver identified himself as the employee who wrote the email.

“The joke was a lot funnier coming from a company than from some guy who wants you to pay attention to him, but I started feeling like I was actively lying to my employers. So, if I have to be honest, I might as well get some self-promotion,” he wrote in his account of the story on his website. “This is, after all, the closest thing I’ll have to a celebrity sex tape. I am a writer, or, at least, am a writer in the way your friend who works in Customer Service but tells people he’s a writer is a writer.”

The employee who penned the vision of a nightmarish future world will face no disciplinary action, Ms. Smitham said.

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