When Pretty is a Problem

What happens if a product is too attractive to consume?

When Pretty is a Problem

There’s a fine line between creating a product that’s attractive enough to appeal to customers but not so exquisite that they’re afraid to use it. If a product is too attractive, people feel worse when they consume it.

The balance between what’s attractive and what’s consumable was the subject of the dissertation of Freeman Wu, a doctoral student in marketing at Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business in Tempe. He co-authored a paper on the topic with Adriana Samper and Andrea Morales of the Carey School, and Gavan Fitzsimons of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in Durham, North Carolina.

In one study, the team compared the use of plain white toilet paper in a gym to the use of paper with an embossed design. Visitors used almost twice as much of the plain paper. In another, 178 participants consumed fewer cupcakes decorated with a frosted rose than those with plain icing.

“Once people see that they’ve taken something beautiful and turned it into something ugly through consumption, that leads to lower enjoyment,” says Wu. He adds that because we “naturally appreciate other peoples’ efforts ... we’re reluctant to destroy the effort these products represent.”

Businesses that embrace sustainability could use these findings—for instance, they could invest in decorative paper napkins, which customers might use more sparingly than plain brown ones.

“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.

Read Goods That Are 'Too Pretty to Use' Could Have a Big Effect on Sustainability. Watch Fitzsimons discuss the research at www.youtube.com/watch?v=xFcXVWgxttI.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's September/October 2017 print issue. If you have comments or feedback on its contents, please contact us at [email protected].