Too pretty to use: why people save products ‘for good’

Kasey Chambers sang, “am I not pretty enough?”, but sometimes you can be too pretty, particularly when it comes to products.

Fancy toilet paper and extravagantly decorated cupcakes have more in common than we would hope. Researchers from Arizona State University have found people are less willing to use products if they are pretty. It seems the nicer the aesthetic, the more effort people believe has been put into the product’s production and the more hesitant they are to consume it.

In one study the researchers placed plain toilet paper in a fitness centre’s bathroom one week, then switched it for Christmas themed paper the next. In theory the same level of paper should have been consumed, but that’s not what happened. When the toilet paper was plain, people used an average of 6.7 sheets, but when it was “pretty”, consumption dropped to an average of 3.7 sheets.  In total the club went through 21 rolls of toilet paper when it was plain, but only 10 when it was emblazoned with festive pattern..

In another, people were given a vanilla cupcake with either plain or fancy icing. It turned out that people who were hungry ate less cupcake if it was extravagantly frosted, and said they enjoyed it less.

People don’t like to destroy effort

Why are people less willing to consume something that looks good? It has to do with perceived effort. The prettier a product, the more effort is presumably expended in its production, and the harder it is to “destroy”.

In the words of the researchers, “highly aesthetic products elicit greater perceptions of effort in their creation, and…consumers have an intrinsic appreciation of such effort. Because the consumption process indirectly destroys the effort invested to make the product beautiful, people reduce consumption of such products…”.

Further, the act of consuming the product (like a magnificent dessert) destroys its beauty before your eyes, reducing enjoyment even further.

According to the researchers “the decrements in beauty that aesthetic products inherently undergo as a result if consumption, combined with concerns that one has actually destroyed effort, underline these effects”.

Lessons for you

The key take away is that a beautiful product might attract customers, but may also reduce their propensity to use it. If you have any products in your house that you are “saving for good”, you’ll know what I mean.

If yours is a highly aesthetic product, the lesson is to make your customers feel okay about consuming it because people likely consume highly aesthetic disposable products more slowly”. That means repeat business may be compromised.

In a sense, Instragram culture is helping here (particularly with food) because people have a record of how good the product was before they consumed it. Normative messages along the lines of “good enough to eat” could also be useful.

Alternatively, if you are interested in people consuming less – for instance helping people manage their weight or better support the environment – it is worth considering making the products look pretty. As the researchers point out, unbleached environmentally-friendly toilet paper may inadvertently cause people to consume more of it.

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4 years ago

That is an insightful article.

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