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Can a Product be Too Pretty to Use?

Feb 24, 2023
Vanderbilt consumer behavior expert, Freeman Wu, explains how enhanced product aesthetics impact consumption

By Lacie Blankenship

Have you ever heard the phrase “it’s too pretty to use?” People typically share this sentiment when they know that using a “pretty” product will result in the destruction of its aesthetically enhanced appearance. Examples of this include beautiful stationary and attractive disposable tableware.     

Freeman Wu

Freeman Wu, Assistant Professor of Marketing, studies aesthetics and product design. His paper, It’s Too Pretty to Use! When and How Enhanced Product Aesthetics Discourage Usage and Lower Consumption Enjoyment, challenges the assumption that enhanced aesthetics always lead to positive consumer experiences. 

It is no secret that marketers invest a lot of resources in product aesthetics and design. For years, research has supported the conversation that enhanced aesthetics persuade purchases, but there’s a difference when the beauty of the products is not durable. Wu’s research extends this conversation by finding that highly aesthetic products may reduce the actual consumption of said products and may result in reduced consumption enjoyment. 

“Prior research and intuition suggests that consumers always like buying beautiful products,” says Wu.  “But then it got me thinking, just because we buy these products, does it mean we’re necessarily going to want to use them? Or can certain products be too pretty to use?”

Co-authored by Wu, Adriana Sampler, Arizona State University, Andrea C. Morales, Arizona State University, and Gavan J. Fitzsimons, Duke University, the research uses field and laboratory studies across multiple consumption contexts within 6 studies. The authors test the inhibiting effect of enhanced aesthetics on product consumption for disposable and perishable products in real-world and lab settings, the impact of aesthetics on consumption/usage and enjoyment, the role of effort inferences and destruction, decrements in beauty, and the post-consumption effect. 

The researchers brought in the role of effort inferences and destruction to acknowledge that highly aesthetic products are perceived to have great effort invested in their creation. Consumers confront this perception with a hesitancy to destroy the product’s beauty, meaning that they either are hesitant to use/consume the product or enjoy consuming it less. 

“It’s interesting that despite the initial excitement of purchasing a highly aesthetic product, consumers are often left feeling less satisfied after consumption,” says Wu. “Consumers feel this way because of the products’ beauty.” 

An example of this is eating an intricately decorated cupcake or using a beautiful napkin and feeling unsatisfied after.  

This study is the first to show that the consumption of highly aesthetically enhanced products may present greater losses of aesthetic appeal, and thus the use of aesthetically enhanced products may have negative emotional outcomes. The study contributes to a growing body of literature exploring consumer behavior. 

The findings from this study have implications for marketers that focus on product development and design. 

“The key finding from this study shows us that brands need to consider the durability of their product aesthetics,” says Wu. “Consumers show that they are happier when their products’ beauty lasts.”

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