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The Surprising Appeal of Products That Require Effort to Use

New research finds they enable consumers to re-establish a feeling that they’re in control of their lives.
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Nike AirFlex Trainer. (Photo: Justin Hee/Flickr)

Nike AirFlex Trainer. (Photo: Justin Hee/Flickr)

As a proposed advertising slogan, “Requires Effort” wouldn’t pass muster with Don Draper. But surprising new research finds that, under certain circumstances, people are in fact drawn to products that demand some work.

Such items become more desirable when people feel a lack of control over their lives, according to Keisha Cutright of the University of Pennsylvania and Adriana Samper of Arizona State University. These “high-effort products,” they write, enable frustrated individuals to recapture a sense of personal power.

“Beyond seeking products that merely symbolize a given trait,” Cutright and Samper write in the Journal of Consumer Research, “consumers sometimes prefer products that give them an opportunity to actually demonstrate that they possess a trait.”

"Beyond seeking products that merely symbolize a given trait, consumers sometimes prefer products that give them an opportunity to actually demonstrate that they possess a trait."

The researchers describe five studies that provide evidence for their thesis. In the first, 217 people recruited online wrote a short personal essay. Half reminisced about a desirable outcome that was the result of something they did; the others wrote about something similarly positive that they had no control over.

They then viewed one of two versions of an ad for a shoe, the Nike Trainer One. One noted that only “limited consumer effort was required to obtain desired results,” while the other “emphasized that high consumer effort was required to obtain the same results.” After reading the ad, participants indicated how likely they were to buy the shoes.

Among those who had just thought about a time they felt powerful, the two approaches were equally effective. But those who had been reminded of a time they were not in control were more likely to purchase the shoes if they had read the high-effort-required ad.

Another study featured 87 intramural basketball players at the University of Pennsylvania, all of whom had played a game earlier that day. After reporting the outcome of that contest, “players viewed an ad for a basketball shoe that required little effort ("Work less, jump higher") or great effort ("Work harder, jump higher."). They then rated their interest in buying the shoes.

Those who had won that day, and were therefore feeling in control of their athletic lives, were equally receptive to the two ads. But those who had lost “showed greater interest when the shoe was positioned requiring high effort,” the researchers write.

Additional studies modified these results, suggesting that “when the threat to control narrows to a specific domain, consumers only seek out higher-effort products in that same domain.” Furthermore, the appeal of high-effort products appears to be limited to people who “feel they can make fast progress in restoring control,” they add.

Nevertheless, their study intriguingly suggests that, when it comes to selling a product, “easy to use” is not always a plus.

“Individuals have a natural desire to restore control when it is threatened,” Cutright and Samper write. “We suggest that products that require high effort (allow them to do so) because they reassure individuals that desired outcomes are possible, while also allowing consumers to exert hard work, enabling them to feel as if they have driven their own outcomes.”