Does Ugly Packaging Turn Off Consumers?

Left to right: Transitional packaging, 2012; current packaging
Left to right: Transitional packaging, 2012; current packaging

We all know that beautiful packaging helps sell products, but what is the effect of a package purposely designed to be ugly — not just ugly, but gross and icky?

In December 2012, Australia took an unusual approach to curb smoking. It didn’t ban cigarettes outright, but it did ban all design branding devices on cigarette packs. It outlawed any evidence of brand distinction and personality. Gone are iconic images of rugged, independent men on horseback and slim, stylish women who look like they know how to have fun. Instead Australia imposed what it described as standardized, or plain, packaging on tobacco products. Based on the premise that great design is persuasive and sells products, Australia used reverse psychology to change attitudes. It outlawed brand design elements including bright colors, logotypes, slogans, and taglines. It ruled that packs can only use Pantone 448c opaque couche, which market researchers deemed the world’s ugliest color, and the brand name now has to be shown in a specified generic font, size and location. Health warnings have to cover 60 percent of the pack’s surface, with photographs of diseases brought on by smoking. Instead of glamorizing the “coolness” of smoking, the plain packaging aims to get people to think twice about how smoking affects their health, and discourage youth from taking up the habit at all. In the first 36 months of Australia’s program, it is estimated that there are about 118,000 fewer Australians smoking as a direct result of standardized packaging.


The success of Australia’s strategy has prompted other countries to follow suit. France, the UK, and Ireland have passed their own plain packaging legislation. France has among the highest smoking rates in Europe. In proposing the plain packaging legislation in 2014, French Health Minister Marisol Touraine said, “We can’t accept that tobacco kills 73,000 people per year in the country. That is equivalent to a plane crash every day with 200 people on board.”

The U.S. has yet to adopt Australia’s plain packaging strategy, even though, according to the Center for Disease Control, cigarette smoke is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths in the U.S. per year, including nearly 42,000 deaths from exposure to secondhand smoke.