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Are some products just too attractive to consume? Duke researchers investigate.

"What kind of monster eats the head off the Easter bunny first?"

This question posed over Easter-time chocolate led researchers in the Fuqua School of Business to investigate whether making a product too attractive can discourage consumers from using it.

“We started talking about how the look and feel of a product could potentially dissuade you from using it,” said Gavan Fitzsimons, R. David Thomas professor of marketing and psychology. “That got us going on this notion that there are times when a product can be so attractive and appealing that you won’t want to consume it.”

Fitzsimons and collaborators from Arizona State University ran tests with various products, including cupcakes, toilet paper and napkins. Each of the seven products had a control group—a “plain” version like a standard frosted cupcake or unembellished toilet paper—and an experimental group—a “pretty” version like a cupcake with a frosted flower or toilet paper with an embossed design.

Across the different types of products, results consistently showed that study participants used more of the plain products than the pretty products.

“The problem comes not in the selection of the item, but the consumption—or lack thereof,” Fitzsimons said. “If something is really pretty, you might be drawn to it and select it to take it home, but then because it is so attractive, you actually feel uncomfortable consuming it.”

Fitzsimons said this discomfort is generally caused by the amount of effort people attribute to the making of the product.

“Somebody created that beautiful flower on top of the cupcake, and if you consume it, you’re destroying the effort that they put into this creation,” he said. “As a result, people are reluctant to ruin the effort.”

The study also found that those who consumed an attractive product showed lower enjoyment in consuming that product. The research, “It’s Too Pretty to Use! When and How Enhanced Product Aesthetics Discourage Usage and Lower Consumption Enjoyment,” was published in the Journal of Consumer Research in March. 

From an applied perspective, Fitzsimons said he intends to pursue this line of research to find the optimal point at which a product is attractive, but not too much so.

“You can’t have everything be plain, otherwise people won’t consume it because they won’t be drawn to it in a store,” he said. “The natural sweet spot becomes attractive enough that people will be drawn to it but not so attractive that they won’t want to consume it.”


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