I don't care what you say, direct marketing needn't be ugly

Kevin Chesters, Strategy Partner at Harbour, makes the case for aesthetic beauty in your campaigns
Kevin Chesters
Canova's Cupid and Psyche
Pure beauty: Canova's Cupid and Psyche

I’m here to kill a myth that is as persistent in marketing as Japanese knotweed, but ten times more toxic.

That idea is the irritatingly persistent (and easily disproved) view that it isn’t necessary for direct response ads to look nice. In fact, the myth seems to be that if you want your direct response creative work to be effective, then it needs to be crammed and ugly. There’s another lie at play here too: that direct response work needs to be rational, especially in B2B. This has become such a persistent trope that many people don’t even challenge it anymore.

I have lost count of the amount of people who act as if they believe that when work is tactical (or B2B), it doesn’t have to be aesthetically pleasing. It almost weirdly more extreme than that. It feels sometimes like people believe if it isn’t full of bullet points then it somehow isn’t doing its job properly!

For starters, this pervasive piece of marketing insanity (ugly = response) is so easily disprovable, it’s laughable. It feels like beating up your little brother. Two Japanese scientists, Masaaki Kurosu and Kaori Kashimura, working for Hitachi in Tokyo in 1995, proved the validity of a principle called the Aesthetic Useability Effect. Like all scientific papers there are far too many words in it, but it proved that the more lovely something looks the more likely someone is to use it. The respondents also thought things that looked nicer were inherently better and had better functionality, regardless of whether this was true or not. Basically, they proved what I learnt to my cost in nightclubs in the late 80s and early 90’s. The more lovely something looks the more likely people are to respond positively to it.

When it comes to B2B advertising this insane ‘rational wins’ trope is even more established and irritating: think knotweed x flu virus + Piers Morgan. One of the weird phenomena that I encounter on a very regular basis is clients who think that if their work is to be ‘effective’ or ‘response driving’ then it doesn’t have to be interesting or creative. I’ve even had someone say to me: “the more you say, the more you sell”.

The weirder thing is that no matter how much hard science gets published, or no matter how much sensible business brains from McKinsey, Harvard and Forbes tell you it’s rubbish, still people will peddle the myth that for something to be “hard working”, it must be ugly and dull. Once you enter the bizarre world of B2B marketing, this persistent lie gets even more pervasive.

When it comes to the ‘rational’ myth in B2B, I’ve seen robust data from Google and from Bain & Harvard that shatters the myth that B2B advertising is more rational than B2C. In fact, it is the opposite because the category is potentially dry, so the messaging must be more emotionally engaging to be noticed.

It's provable and unarguable. Yet there still seems to be a persistent myth based on nothing but received wisdom or hubris that the counter argument somehow holds some sort of validity.

There is more data to heap on this misconception (as if it needed any more disproving). Analysis from Lumen Research studying response to 347 different direct response ads over seven years proved that fewer words equal higher response, and that visuals and the headline are pretty much the only two elements that anyone even notices. See? The more you say, the LESS you sell. Proven fact.

Here is my contrarian (100% proven) idea – the more beautiful something is, the more effective it will be and the better response it’ll get. The more people it will attract, the more customers will be drawn to you and your idea, product, service, or company. Beautiful eats functional for breakfast.

Written by
Kevin Chesters
Written by
March 1, 2023