Colour me icky: the persuasive power of Pantones

Scriberia power of pantones 1

Though cigarette packets have long been emblazoned with graphic health warnings – featuring gangrenous feet, rotten teeth, dissected cancerous lungs and the like – it’s hoped that Pantone 448c (a cow-pattish hue) could wield far more power in persuading smokers to quit.

Cigarette packaging in the UK has recently undergone another less than flattering make-over. Gone are the brand logos and bright colours from packets – tobacco pouches have been stripped of their brand identities entirely – and in their place is Pantone 448c – recently crowned, ‘the world’s ugliest colour’.

Sir Harpal Kumar, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, has said the decision marks, ‘the beginning of the end for packaging that masks a deadly and addictive product’.

But is it wishful thinking to believe that a simple change of colour could make a difference in what the World Health Organisation terms ‘a health crisis of epidemic proportions’? Sure, Pantone 448c is offensive to the eye, but is it offensive enough to change the habits of Britain’s 9.6 million adult smokers?

Colours, in fact, have an enormous influence over our moods, behaviours and decision-making processes – far greater than words. We can read article after article about the health risks of smoking, but it’s the colour of the packaging that will form 62-90% of our snap judgements when we’re standing at the cashier’s counter.

Colours have been used as part of government ‘nudge’ campaigns, which seek to subtly influence your behaviour without taking away your freedom of choice. In 2012, for example, green footprints were painted around Copenhagen leading pedestrians towards bins. And in its first year, the campaign saw a 46% decrease in litter.

Similarly, Denmark saw an increase in recycling when Sille Krukow’s team introduced a coloured recycling system onto beaches that were struggling to control litter. Krukow’s since given a Tedx talk on the campaign’s success, where she explains that when faced with a colour-coded system, the human brain will instinctively try to suss out its meaning. And so, colour-coded bins are a highly effective way to get people thinking about where they were throwing their rubbish.

If you’ve spent the past three months trying to decide which colour to paint your wall, you’re not wrong to be taking the decision seriously. This study shows how the shade of your office walls can determine your productivity (top tip: use blue for creative brainstorming!).

While there’s no shortage of evidence that colour impacts our behaviour, what is less clear is why it does. It’s often said that our relationship to colour is imprinted in our evolutionary DNA; that understanding colour, and responding to it, is a survival instinct. Red means danger, fire, alarm. Our heart rates increase at the sight of it. Our response to it is immediate, physical and innate.

But today, while our brains remain highly responsive to colour, our understanding of colour is rather more nuanced. As a result certain colours have transcended their evolutionary message, and in a variety of  contexts, can mean a variety of things.

This is something our scribes have noticed while scribing and sketchnoting for a variety of brands in various industries. Reds and yellows, for example, are frequently used in the branding of FMCGs products, because they communicate speed, efficiency and economy. Meanwhile, blue is ubiquitously used by banks, evoking feelings of dependability, transparency and loyalty.

Just as language evolves, so too the meaning of colour. McDonalds have departed from their red and yellow logo after conducting research that found red is now associated with bad food rather than fast food. In reponse, they introduced shades of green and yellow to re-brand themselves as an ethical fast food option (green being the colour of freshness, environmental ethics).

What strikes us as interesting, is that the green of the future-facing McDonald’s is not a million shades from Pantone 448c – the least appetising colour on the planet according to current perceptions. Yet, the two colours are obviously different enough to project quite differently visual stories to consumers – ‘mmmm… tasty’, and  ‘urgh… cancer’.

It’s highly likely that, in years to come, Pantone 448c (though it’s unlikely ever to be considered a great beauty) will not pack quite the same punch when it comes to putting off the punters. And when that happens, it will be the duty of another, as yet unsung icky shade, to make its mark.