The rainbow deception

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Myths / Psychology

Will wearing red help you pick up? Do sports teams dressed in black play more aggressively? Are good guys in movies often dressed in white? Yes, yes and yes. We all have instinctive responses to colours and in the case of food packaging, marketers are very keen to exploit them.

Want to be more attractive?

In a variety of animals, red symbolises attraction. For example, many female primates display red colouration on their faces or private parts to signal to males they are fertile and ready to mate. It’s not so different among humans. Men sit closer to women wearing red and ask more intimate questions of them. And men perceive women dressed in red as both sexually receptive and attractive. Male diners even give bigger tips to waitresses wearing red rather than white. And women aren’t immune to the allure of red. Show women headshots of men and tell them you’re interested in their first impression of the person (don’t mention colour or gender). Show half of the women the man against a red background and the other half, the same picture but against a white background. Women rank a man shown against red consistently more attractive than the same man against white. A man seen with red will also be rated as high in social status and with a higher potential for success. The same was true for men wearing red, rather than white clothing. The research is clear: at a sub-conscious level, red acts as a sexual attraction booster for both sexes.

The power of colour

Colour can have huge effects on our perceptions, and the associations we have with different colours have been the focus of much research. It goes far beyond just ‘red is sexy’. We also know that wearing red enhances performance in a variety of sports. And when you see red, your physical reactions become both faster and stronger. Professional ice hockey players are more aggressive when wearing black, rather than white uniforms. We assume that people dressed in white are likely to be good, whereas those dressed in black are bad. Star Wars, anyone? When you see the colour pink, your muscles relax. In the 1970s, Alexander Schauss, a biosocial researcher, even argued that painting prison cells pink would reduce aggressive and violent incidents. The opponents’ change room at the University of Iowa has been painted pink since 1979. This fact has been used to explain the home team’s success on the football field.

Show me the money

Colour is serious business to marketers. Research shows that visual appearance is overwhelmingly important to consumers choosing what to buy, and up to 90% of a person’s impression of what an object looks like is based on colour. So it’s not surprising that packaging designers are absolute experts when it comes to colour associations. These days, the colour green has become synonymous with natural, healthy and good. You can find it adorning packaging for everything from beer to sugary yogurt, but it’s also the predominant colour used in organic food packaging. In 2000, Heinz carried out a marketing experiment and created a green-packaged tomato sauce, which was incredibly lucrative (but no less sugar-laden).

Healthy Coke? You’ve got to be kidding

You can be confident there is some science behind this green effect when multinational giants Coca-Cola and Pepsi get on the bandwagon. The brand new Coca-Cola Life, sweetened with stevia leaf extract as well as cane sugar and Pepsi True, also sweetened with stevia have remarkably similar packaging. There’s a lot of green! But of course these drinks are not in any way a healthy food choice.

If it's green it must ge good for you... right? Image credit: Gerald Stolk via Flickr

If it’s green it must be good for you… right? Image credit: Gerald Stolk via Flickr

And the green message can be much more subtle. Researchers asked volunteers to imagine they were standing in a supermarket queue, feeling hungry and had chocolate bars in front of them. The people were then shown an image of a chocolate bar with either a green or red nutrition label. They were otherwise identical; in both cases, the label stated that the chocolate bar contained 260 calories. You can guess the result: people thought the bar with the green label was healthier. Next the researchers showed people pictures of identical chocolate bars but with either a white or green calorie label. Again, green signaled healthy. And the more that healthy eating habits mattered to the study volunteer, the more he or she believed the bar with the green label was the healthier option. We may think we’re too smart to be fooled by simple marketing tricks, but this study suggests otherwise. Colour is a force to be reckoned with.

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    • Mine too Kirri! Actually maybe a very close 2nd to aqua. There are clear evolutionary arguments for why red symbolises these things to humans but I didn’t have room to get into it. Thank you for reading.

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