Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Evolution and Advertising- Part 2: The Power of Colour

Colour is tremendously powerful.

Fascinating research has discovered that colour is a commanding force in altering and initiating emotions and behaviours. The use of different colours can calm an angry prisoner (Schauss, 1981), improve recovery rates in hospital (Dalke et al., 2005), influence your perceived attractiveness of a mate (University of Rochester, 2008) and in the world of marketing, it has been found that about 62-90 percent of a product assessment is based on colour alone (Singh, 2006).

So why is colour such a powerful and influential force? Particularly, why is it so relevant in consumer behaviour? A brief look into the history of colour in our past may help to explain some very interesting phenomena and also highlight techniques with which marketing companies have implemented to tap these primal instincts.

Colour has long been associated with communication. In the natural world, colour is used within species to indicate and draw attention to reproductive behaviour and territories, while between species, colour is often used to warn or deter predators. For the peacock, a female is believed to choose its mate based on the size and colour of its spectacular tail feathers during courtship, while for the Poison-Arrow frog, its bright colouration has benefited its survival by warning off potential predators. These are just two of many such examples of colour in the animal kingdom. In regards to Darwinian Theory, the ability to detect colour in both instances is vital in species survival.

The perception of colour by humans occurs by the communication between both the eyes and the brain. Our eyes transmit light information from the external world including reflected colours from objects. Thus, when we look at a banana, the banana is not yellow; it simply reflects the wavelengths of colour which we perceive to be yellow and absorbs the rest. Subsequently, a black object has absorbed all wavelengths of colour. This light is projected to our retina, which is covered in millions of light sensitive cells, some shaped like rods and some like cones. Cones cells which are concentrated in the middle of the retina are responsible for the perception of colour vision. These cells transmit visual information to our visual cortex, enabling the perception of multiple colours.

Interestingly, significant latencies exist in the transmission of visual information to our visual cortex (Campbell et al., 1988). It has also been established that these latencies are not constant, but are shorter for stimuli of higher intensity (Maunsell et al., 1999). As a direct consequence of this physiology, some colours stand out to humans more than others. Bright yellow is one of the most visible of all the colours in the spectrum, it is the first colour that the human eye detects. Because of its special salience, yellow is often used in street signs and action orientated branding. We can see below on amazon.com that all the action buttons have been cleverly coloured yellow, not only drawing our attention towards these functions, but promoting purchasing action.

Colour and human emotion are also closely intertwined. In an old study, Cimbalo and colleagues (1978) highlight a reliable association between emotion and colour, with young children associating yellows and oranges with happiness and brown and darker colours with sadness. The authors also argue that due to the young age of the participants in the study, these effects may well be innate. The psychology of colour has continued to illustrate the emotional implications of different colours based on human history with dark blues being associated with night time, thus passivity, and bright yellow colours being associated with sunlight, arousal and action (Luscher & Scott, 1969). To this end lighter blues and greens are described as cooling colours commonly associated with tranquillity and serenity, while warmer colours such as reds and oranges are energetic and arousing. Evidently, the emotional properties of colour that have been reported in the literature are very relevant to our past and our relationship with our immediate environment.

While it is apparent that colour and emotion have a strong association, the link between these emotions and innate responses to colour is also fascinating. Numerous studies have been conducted determining the influence of colour over particular behaviours. A particular shade of pink (Baker-Miller Pink) has been found to reduce aggressive and antisocial behaviour in prisoners when compared with prisoners in cream painted cells (Schauss, 1981). It has been commonly reported that since painting London's Blackfriar bridge green, suicide levels have dropped by a whopping 34%. The colour blue also has interesting implications, reportedly acting as an appetite suppressant. One prominent explanation of this is that blue food is a rare occurrence in nature with only blueberries, a small number of potato and corn varieties holding elements of blue. Blue is also commonly an indicator of spoiled food. This effect is so strong that weight loss programs often advise people to eat off blue plates or even eat with blue glasses in an attempt to stem their hunger. Alternatively, red, a common colour in food such as apples, berries, tomatoes of course red meat, reportedly stimulates our hunger and also increases our metabolic rate (Singh, 2006). Let us look at the branding of the world’s top fast food chains. When also acknowledging the association between yellow and happiness, these super brands seem to have it made.

Could the influence of colour also be a determining factor in the war between Pepsi and Coke? Maybe the appetite suppressant effects of blue are enough to alter our impulse buying decision when we go to the fridge?

The importance of colour in advertising and brand strategy is obvious. Advertising is designed to capture our attention, induce our emotion and evoke a particular behaviour. Clearly, a calculated use of particular colour can promote this sequence of events, funnelling an audience into a desired emotional state, hopefully in promotion of a purchasing decision.

The use of prescriptive colouring can also add a different dimension to a product. Blue is often used to promote cleanliness, intelligence and superiority, while reds are energetic colours used in marketing games, energy drinks and products related to high activity. Colour also has implications in brand recall. The recognition of different colours has also been vital in our evolution. In our past, the ability to recognise and differentiate colours in fruits and buds was vital in the avoidance of sickening or poisonous substances, while maximising recognition of edible resources. Today, a similar recognition is occurring in the modern market place. Like our predecessors, consumers also learn colour preferences for particular products based on associations they have formulated through their experience (Grossman & Wisenblit, 1999). Colours such as Cadbury purple and Heineken green are so strongly marketed and related to the products they produce, that consumers are falling back in to a thoughtless heuristics strongly based on colour recognition.

Evidently, deep rooted emotional and biological associations between colours and our evolution have been tapped into in modern day marketing. Maybe on a subconscious and impulsive level, Coca-cola will always be more appetising than Pepsi due to the use of different colours in their branding and the strong, subconscious impulses these promote. With an alarming number of impulse decision based on the colour of products alone, it is clearly vital that marketers use every scrap of research in their power to implement different colours to say the right thing, about the right product, to the right person.


Campbell, F. W., Artigas, J. M., & Felipe, A. (1988). Visual reaction-time versus action time. Opthalamic and Physiological Optics, 8, 60-62.

Cimbalo, R.S., Beck, K.L., Sendziak, D.S. (1978), "Emotionally toned pictures and color selection for children and college students", Journal of Genetic Psychology, Vol. 33 No.2, pp.303-4.

Grossman, R. P., & Wisenblit, J. Z. (1999). What we know about consumers’ color choices. Journal of Marketing Practice: Applied Marketing Science, 5(3), 78-88.

Jacobs, K.W., Suess, J.F. (1975), "Effects of four psychological primary colors on anxiety state", Perceptual and Motor Skills, Vol. 41 pp.207-10.

Luscher, M., Scott, I. (1969), The Luscher Color Test, Random House, New York, NY.

Maunsell, J. H. R., Ghose, G. M., Assad, J. A., McAdams, C. J., Boudreau, C. E., & Noerager, B. D. (1999). Visual response latencies of magnocellular and parvocellular LGN neurons in macaque monkeys. Visual Neuroscience, 16, 1-14.

Schauss, A. G. (1981) The Physiological Effect of Color on the Suppression of
human aggression: Research on Baker-Miller pink. International Journal of Biosocial Research, 2.

Singh, S. (2006). Impact of color on marketing. Management Decision, 44(6), 783-789.

University of Rochester (2008, October 28). Red enhances men’s attractiveness to women, psychological study reveals. ScienceDaily.

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