Debunking the myth that “ugly sells”?

Listen to or read enough copywriters and you can be pretty sure you’ll encounter the phrase “ugly sells” sooner or later.

There’s just one problem with that statement. It’s not true – there’s another mechanism in play as I’ll show you shortly. I’ll also share how it can be that such an intelligent subset of the species as copywriters can help perpetuate this myth.

When it comes to the design of sales pages and ads, there are two opposing points of view.

Most designers and new business owners overestimate the importance of design.

At the same time, most copywriters underestimate the importance of design.

Overestimating design

Clearly most designers will overestimate the importance of design, because it’s what they do.

Who wants to believe that their job isn’t that important?

The problem is that many designers don’t really understand what their job is. Design is problem solving and in the case of a sales page, the problem to solve is getting the page read.

However, many designers think their job is creating a great looking page. As a result, it’s common for sales pages to be published with elements that are fighting against the copy.

If a sales page gets feedback like “I wish my page looked like that” or “I love the way your page looks”, something’s gone very wrong.

They should be talking about the product.

The design should play its part in getting the reader into the copy, but then it should fade out.

Underestimating design

Copywriters are big believers in the strength of the written word and so they should be.

Take the copy out of a page and good luck getting any sales. Remove all the design so just plain text remains and conversions will fall, but sales will still be possible.

That goes a long way to explaining the belief in “ugly sells”. Over the years, many copywriters have presented their copy in pages with minimal design and achieved great results.

That said, it’s not uncommon to see such pages where the design could be improved. Not in terms of making it look prettier, but making the copy easier to read.

This is where copywriters underestimate the power of design. Nailing the best font size, line height, character spacing, line length, color choices, etc can all improve the reading experience.

The easier copy is to read, the more likely it will be read.

In the belief that the copy is much more important than the design, these seemingly small details often get overlooked.

If “ugly sells”, why worry about such fripperies?

But ugly doesn’t sell.

What is ugly?

Here’s the crux of the issue.

A dictionary will define the word ugly as something like “unpleasant or repulsive, especially in appearance”, but what does that mean to you or me or the other however-many-billions of people on the planet?

Here’s a couple of pics of Pirata.

To Uncle Chuckles’ eye, he’s an exceptionally handsome example of the genus domesticum kittus gittus.

Yet I’ve seen visitors to la maison Chuckles physically cringe when encountering him.

“Ugly is in the eye of the beholder”

If we can’t agree universally on what is ugly and what isn’t ugly, the statement “ugly sells” makes no logical sense. It’s shoehorning a subjective word into an objective statement.

In case you need a more salient example than a cat with no eyes, Ben Settle’s a widely respected copywriter who in past emails has referred to his sales pages as being ugly.

Maybe he doesn’t see these particular pages as some of his ugly pages, but if he does, then our opinions of them are very different. I think they look great and serve as fine examples of design excelling at serving its purpose.

These pages are meant to share information and the clear, efficient and typographically led design is wholly focused on helping the reader to read the copy. They’re not in the same country, let alone ZIP code as ugly design.

The mechanism is contrast

While we can’t easily define whether a page is or isn’t ugly, we may more easily agree that pages like the two examples above look different to many sales pages.

Most brands want their pages and adverts to look attractive and stand out.

Designers and ad agencies won’t get far trying to sell unattractive design. That’s not what their customers want, so that’s not what they offer.

Ignore the fact that we have the same problem defining attractive and unattractive, the greater irony is that because everyone is trying to achieve the same thing, no-one stands out.

Try and pick the ugly contestant at a Miss World beauty pageant.

You’ll likely lose your mind in the effort.

However, if Uncle Chuckles slipped into his bathing costume and took to the stage to share how he wants to end the suffering of the world’s children and marry the multi-billionaire Elon Musk because of his deep and thoughtful tweets, your problem just solved itself.

The contrast between a pool ready Uncle Chuckles and the average Miss World contestant is much the same as the contrast between one of those Ben Settle sales pages and most other sales pages we encounter online.

If a page looks different, it’s going to stand out and that’s one extra tool working at getting the reader into reading the copy.

Now if that copy’s been written by a sparklingly proficient copywriter, we shouldn’t be surprised if the ker-ching isn’t too far away.

Should you still not be convinced contrast is the mechanism, find yourself a brochure for some community event, something like a school fête. Likely it’ll contain adverts for local businesses.

Look at the ads that stand out. In that context, it’s the ads that have been professionally designed that will get your attention, because they’re surrounded by ads from businesses who saved their cash and DIYed their ad in Powerpoint or Word.

Why does this myth persist?

The “ugly sells” statement is particularly popular among copywriters and it seems odd for it to persist among a group who are generally so smart. Writing powerful and effective copy requires a degree of mental gymnastics at a level some way above most of us.

However, there’s a very simple explanation for why this situation is so common. It doesn’t just apply to this illogical statement either.

I explain the human condition responsible in my article Why brilliant people sometimes believe numpty things.

Incidentally, that numpty things theory isn’t of my making, I’m just a designer after all. You can thank Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.