It's a well-worn cliché here in Hollywood that one of the surest ways to win an Academy Award is to go "ugly." Christian Bale lost nearly 30 pounds and donned ugly, false teeth to play the crack-addicted boxer Dicky Eklund in "The Fighter." He ultimately won the Golden Globe and the Academy Award for best supporting actor. The gorgeous Charlize Theron gained 30 pounds, shaved her eyebrows, and wore fake teeth to play the award-winning role of serial killer Aileen Wuornos in "Monster." And, of course, the most famous of these transformations is Robert De Niro. He got into lean, mean fighting shape to play the young boxer Jake LaMotta in "Raging Bull." But then, the producers stopped production for seven months so De Niro could gain 60 pounds to play the older, washed-up version of the boxer. It's slightly ironic that Hollywood is so purely focused on "beauty" but rewards itself so often for ugly-ing the place up.
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Just like in Hollywood, we marketers can be too focused on beauty. Our creative teams sculpt "beautiful" ads, websites, email campaigns, and content marketing. We strive for slick, gorgeous set pieces. We love our negative space and use words like "clean" and "simple" and "elegant" to describe the imagery of our brand. We use font design sparingly -- and aim for the best readability. In fact, designers have devoted entire hate-sites to fonts like Comic Sans and Papyrus. In short, we all want to design marketing that resembles fine art.
But ugly often wins
Ugly has certainly proven itself on the web. Go have a look at Craigslist.org or PlentyofFish.com. With all due respect to Markus Frind and Craig Newmark, those are as ugly as it gets. In fact, Craigslist breaks all the marketing rules by not even marketing itself at all. It doesn't even have any marketing people on staff. Is it successful? Well, PlentyofFish is one of the most popular dating sites on the Wweb, and Craigslist has more than $100 million in revenue. I think the answer is an absolute yes. And, certainly, no one is going to give Wikipedia any awards for being "beautiful" or slick -- but that site is one of the most visited on the planet.
But, OK, so Craigslist and Wikipedia are "anti-marketing" -- does that count? Well, maybe, but let's look at actual "ugly" in marketing. Can we find examples where "ugly" has worked specifically in marketing campaigns? Well, yes we can. Remember "HeadOn -- Apply directly to the forehead?" Yes, of course you do -- even though that TV commercial is more than five years old. It won several contests for "worst commercial of the year" but still managed to increase the product's sales by 50 percent in its first few months of running.
Then, there's the online grudge match of social platforms -- the beauty and beast of Facebook vs. Myspace. One of the main benefits touted to marketers when Facebook introduced its advertising platform was that, unlike Myspace's chaotic, animated GIF hellstorm, Facebook's design was a uniform, clean, beautiful experience. Everyone would know where ads were and where to click right? Well, traffic amounts notwithstanding (we know now that the platforms are highly unequal), the advertising performance favors the "ugly" chaotic Myspace. By most accounts, the average click-through rate (CTR) for Facebook ads are a 0.04 percent -- dismally low. Compare that to an average Myspace CTR rate of .1 percent. That's more than twice the response. Is it any wonder that Facebook has recently opened up the design capabilities of Facebook Pages so that we now have enough rope to be "ugly"?
This higher performance hasn't just been reported across the social networks, but on landing pages and email campaigns as well. Anne Holland of MarketingSherpa related a story a few years ago at MarketingSherpa's Subscription Summit in New York. During a presentation, a Match.com marketer showed off two pieces of email creative that the agency tested. In the first was a beautiful photograph of a smiling, happy couple in a tasteful layout. The second was just giant text and a "Go" button. When asked which one would win, the audience resoundingly picked the beautiful one. Guess which one actually won?
So, what is it about ugly? What, as marketers, can we learn from "ugly"? Well, here are three examples of "ugly winning" and some best practices that came out of it.