In this paper the seismic response of inelastic structures with unilateral contact is revisited with dimensional analysis. All physically realizable contact types are captured via a non-smooth complementarity approach. The implementation of formal dimensional analysis leads to a condensed presentation of the response and unveils remarkable order even though two different types of non-linearity coexist in the response: the boundary non-linearity of unilateral contact and the inelastic behaviour of the structure itself. It is shown that regardless the intensity and frequency content of the excitation, all response spectra become self-similar when expressed in the appropriate dimensionless terms. The proposed approach hinges upon the notion of the energetic length scale of an excitation which measures the persistence of ground shaking to impose deformation demands. Using the concept of persistency which is defined for excitations with or without distinct pulses, the response is scaled via meaningful novel intensity measures: the dimensionless gap and the dimensionless yield displacement. The study confirms that contact may have a different effect on the response displacements of inelastic structures depending on the spectral region. In adjacent inelastic structures, such as colliding buildings or interacting bridge segments, contact is likely to alter drastically the excitation frequencies’ at which the system is most vulnerable. Finally, it is shown that the proposed approach yields maximum response displacements which correlate very well with the persistency of real earthquakes for a bridge system with considerably complex behaviour.