The Peril of Beauty: When Goods Are Too Pretty to Use

Professor Gavan Fitzsimons on the unintended effect of making products attractive

June 5, 2017
Behavioral Science, Marketing


Beauty sells, but too much of it can put consumers off, according to new research from Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

Professor Gavan Fitzsimons found that making a product more attractive can lead people to use it less and even make people feel worse when they do consume it.

"It might appear that making really visually attractive products might be the winning strategy because people are drawn to them," Fitzsimons said. "But you have to balance that physical appeal with making sure it's not so attractive that people won't consume it."

The research, "It's Too Pretty to Use! When and How Enhanced Product Aesthetics Discourage Usage and Lower Consumption Enjoyment" is forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Research. Fitzsimons worked with Freeman WuAdriana Samper and Andrea Morales of Arizona State University.

The researchers ran seven studies comparing pretty products with plain equivalents.

"We took products that one would think would be enhanced by making them really attractive and observed what happened to consumption when we did that," Fitzsimons said.

In one study, the researchers measured how much plain white toilet paper was used in a gym compared to how much was used when the paper had an embossed design. Visitors used almost twice as much plain paper than of the patterned variety.

"If they don't consume it, they don't come back and get another one."

In another study, 178 participants were given cupcakes, either with plain icing or with a frosted rose on top. Participants consumed less of the floral cakes and reported enjoying them less.

"Consistent with intuition, the beautiful one is appealing to people and they might pick it up over the regular one," Fitzsimons said. "But they become much less likely to consume it, and if they don't consume it they don't come back and get another one."

Further studies involving napkins found participants used far fewer when the napkins featured a pretty design than when they were plain.

"When things are really beautiful, we think that's because a lot of effort has gone into creating them," Fitzsimons said. "We want to respect that effort and we don't want to devalue the beauty. We respect and honor the effort that has gone into it by not devaluing the beauty. We show appreciation by not consuming -- which is probably the opposite of what someone who creates a cupcake, for example, had in mind."

The challenge for marketers is finding that line without crossing it.

"It's going to differ between product categories," Fitzsimons said. "But for each product there's going to be this sweet spot where a product is visually appealing enough to get people's attention and draw them to buy the product but isn't so beautiful that they're unwilling to open the wrapper and take a bite."

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