If a person’s angry, they’re said to be “seeing red.” Feeling depressed? You’re probably just “a little blue.” Maybe you’re “green with envy” or “tickled pink.”
Ever wonder why?
Humans strongly correlate colors to emotions, and we can probably blame our DNA for that, at least in part. Scientists believe that humans developed color perception over several million years, partially as a means of adapting to new threats and finding new foods—both essential tasks for survival.
But evolution doesn’t quite account for all of our obsession with color. We draw some of our perception from cultural sources; that’s why we typically see pink as a “girl color” and blue as a “boy color.”
Advertisers are well aware of the power of color, and they use that power to influence consumers. To find out how, we spoke with Dustin York, director of the communication undergraduate program at Maryville University. Before starting his teaching career, York worked in advertising, and he specializes in non-verbal communication.
York tells Urbo that marketing experts have been studying the effects of color for decades. Thanks to them…
Restaurants use certain colors to influence our appetites.
Ever notice that the inside of every fast food chain looks pretty much the same? That is, of course, by design.
Studies have shown definitively that restaurant design and layout can influence customer and employee behaviors, and restaurateurs have certainly taken notice. The National Restaurant Association recommends that its members research “the psychological effects of colors,” and publications like Restaurant Insider publish lengthy pieces on choosing colors that will influence customer loyalty.
“There’s a lot of research based on fast food … Anything food related is connected with citrus colors,” York says. “A shade of orange will increase a patron’s appetite, so you’ll see a lot of citrus colors in fast food restaurant interiors or on menu boards.”
The shade of the color is extremely important, since some hues can actually inhibit consumer behavior.
“A calm color—for instance, a calm blue—actually suppresses appetite,” York explains. “You won’t go into a McDonald’s and see a sky blue seat or menu board. Light blue and light pink are the most calming, so they’re used in a lot of hospitals and prisons. It’s to calm the individual, so you’ll never see that in food.”
Just as colors can make a person calm, they can also prompt aggression.
Red is frequently associated with aggression—the aforementioned phrase “seeing red” comes to mind—and that’s no accident.
One study showed that sports teams with red uniforms had a slight advantage over their opponents. In their conclusion, the study’s authors note that sporting organizations should take uniform coloration into consideration to “ensure a level playing field.”
Perhaps that’s good advice: At the University of Iowa, visiting teams’ locker rooms are painted a soft shade of pink, allegedly to gain a competitive advantage. York says that colors are capable of having an energizing or agitating effect, which can create some unexpected problems.
“I have a 15-month-old daughter, and before she was born, my wife suggested painting her room with this fun yellow shade,” York says. “She’d read some of the research that says bright yellow is associated with children and their toys…but that’s one of the worst things you could possibly do.”
Why? Well, most parents want to get a few hours of sleep per night. Bright colors might prevent that. Infants see shades of color differently than adults, but they can react strongly to bright colors. Some studies suggest that babies prefer softer hues of blue, purple, and red.
“Babies’ rooms should use cool colors, like light blues or pinks,” York suggests. “That calms them. Research shows that there’s less crying without those bright colors.”
Other colors can influence productivity.
Researchers at the University of Melbourne found that office workers can improve concentration by glancing out a window at a green roof, i.e., a roof covered in shrubbery, for 40 seconds. According to the authors, the green provides a “restorative” effect that allowed study participants to regain the mental resources they needed to concentrate on their tasks.
“There’s a reason you look out the window and seek nature,” study author Kate Lee told Science Daily. “It can help you concentrate on your work and to maintain performance across the workday.”
York agrees with that assessment.
“Green is rejuvenating,” he says. “Brands use it when they want a product to look refreshing.”
Perhaps that’s why money’s green—the government wants you to work harder. Makes sense, right?
Actually, there’s a much simpler reason. When the United States government began issuing cash in 1861, bills were printed with a green-black ink that didn’t fade easily. That made it harder to counterfeit. Eventually, the green ink became associated with the “strong and stable credit of the government,” according to the Department of the Treasury’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
Advertising companies can sometimes change the public’s perception of certain colors.
Green has only been associated with money for a century and a half, and it’s not the only color to get a reinvention.
“A lot of ad companies and agencies will try to make a certain color popular in order to sell something,” York says. “The [popular] color of the season—for instance, the spring color for this year—a lot of that is just based on some ad company trying to connect a color to their product.”
According to York, while evolution plays a role in determining the psychological effect of some colors, culture is a far more powerful force.
“Our perception of color changes constantly,” he says. “However, some colors are pretty consistent: for instance, the colors associated with appetite and attraction.”
Other colors can change over time.
“Purple is seen as luxurious,” York says. “You’ll see shades of purple used for luxury vehicles, watches, perfumes, things like that. White is pure—the cowboy with the white hat is always ‘the good guy.’ If a company is trying to show a product as clean, sophisticated, and modern, they’ll use a lot of white blocking to give that sense to users.”
We’re looking at you, Apple.
Most brand logos are a certain color.
Brands like General Electric, AT&T, HVisa, Dell, and BMW all have something in common.
“Blue is the most common for logos, specifically, especially the royal or darker blues,” York says.
That’s likely because most people prefer blue. It’s the most common favorite color in the world, and it can help to establish trust and authority. Part of that is cultural, but it’s not hard to find a possible evolutionary explanation for our obsession with blue: Water is, after all, fairly important to human survival.
Then again, maybe we like blue because it makes us feel smarter. Some studies suggest that blue light improves cognitive performance, so advertisers might be taking advantage of that effect.
Politicians use color carefully, too.
York worked on Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential campaign.
“Basically, every suit [Obama] ever wore was black,” York says. “He had an entire truck of black suits, based on the philosophy that black shows authority.”
Of course, Obama often preferred a blue necktie—blue is, after all, the color commonly associated with the Democratic Party.
That’s actually a surprisingly new development. Smithsonian.com traces the colors of the two major political parties to NBC’s broadcast of the 1976 Presidential Election.
Anchor John Chancellor reportedly asked his producers to build a giant map that would show which states supported Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter and which states supported Republican incumbent Gerald Ford. To show the totals clearly, the producers used bright shades of blue and red: blue for Republicans and red for Democrats.
No, that’s not a misprint: For several decades, networks used the colors interchangeably for candidates on the left and right sides of the political aisle. Eventually, in the extremely close 2000 presidential election, the colors took on their modern connotation—red for Republicans, blue for Democrats.
That shows how easily our cultural perceptions of color can change, and it’s something that marketing experts study carefully.
If you’re looking for a simple life hack, York has a few suggestions.
So, how can you use color to improve your life?
“Red can actually cause your heart rate to increase,” York says. “The research says that if you wear a small ‘pop’ of red on a first date, your date’s heart rate will increase slightly, which influences attraction.”
However, subtlety is crucial.
“Too much red can be overwhelming,” York says. “If you’re in an all-red room, it’s going to be easier for you to get aggravated or angry. You wouldn’t want to wear an all-red suit for a first date. That would probably go beyond what you were expecting.”
In professional situations, consider taking a page from Obama’s book.
“Black clothing shows authority, so when going to job interviews or meetings, pair a black suit or blazer with a clean, white undershirt,” York suggests. “It’s sort of the go-to outfit for an interview. Your authority will go up, and you’ll seem like a more desirable candidate—as long as you’re not looking like the grim reaper.”
At home, you can use color to relieve stress.
“If there’s something going on in your life that’s incredibly stressful, you might paint your living space a light blue or light green color,” York says. “A lot of television design shows use those light colors for that reason. That helps with stress levels.”
By understanding the psychology of color, you can use it to your advantage—just leave some room for experimentation. Personal preference plays a major role, so while science can provide some guidelines, color ultimately affects everyone differently.