"Expert" sees psychological manipuation in packaging colors

Fifty-six years ago, a book called The Hidden Persuaders came out. In it, Vance Packard, the author, decried early forms of research into how consumers perceived products as some form of eeeevil, mind-controlling conspiracy on the part of manipulative marketers.

One example Packard cited was Procter & Gamble’s consumer-testing of packaging colors for their new (at the time) laundry detergent, Tide. P&G packaged the same detergent with three different color schemes, then gave them to housewives to use, then asked for their evaluation of the detergent (not the packaging). Housewives who used Tide in the very vivid orange packaging reported it was too harsh on clothing. Housewives who used the very same product with pale orange packaging reported it was too weak to get out all the dirt. And housewives who used the same Tide in medium-orange packaging said it was just right. Guess which color P&G ended up using.

As far as one self-proclaimed “business color and branding expert” is concerned, it’s still 1957. According to Karen Haller, “Brands use the psychology of color to manipulate you,” according to an article with that headline.

To prove her point, Haller goes through a color-by-color analysis of packaging colors. Most of this “analysis” is just plain contrary to fact.

  • Red – “Red is the color of power and passion,” Haller says, connoting “excitement, energy and physical courage.” This explains why Coca-Cola, which reflects none of these attributes, has used it for years – not, as Haller says, “in its lettering,” but as a background color. The one time Coke did use red lettering – in December, 2011, when they colored their cans white to support a green polar-bear promotion – they provoked a huge consumer backlash and ended up scrapping 1.4 billion white cans.
  • Green – “Green is the color of money and envy…the environment, Mother Earth and universal love,” says Haller. That may explain why Starbucks uses it, but how do you explain John Deere?
  • Blue represents “trust, integrity, and communication” but “can make a brand appear cold, aloof and unapproachable. Does Haller honestly think this was what Tiffany had in mind when they released their first mail-order catalog with that color in 1845? Today, countless expensive jewelry stores across the country use the same blue packaging, not because of any attempted psychological manipulation, but because they’re Tiffany wannabes.
  • Purple, claims Haller means “[q]uality, luxury, and decadence” with a touch of whimsy thrown in. I’m sure that’s why people with digestive problems choose Nexium, the little purple pill.
  • Yellow expresses “a personality of happiness, optimism and friendliness” – all attributes that Postit and Caterpillar doubtlessly are eager to convey.
  • Orange shows brands are “fun, playful and enjoying social interaction” and can “come across as frivolous” – like Home Depot?
  • Pink stands for “love nurturing, and caring” along with femininity and sex appeal, all of which are integral product attributes of Owens Corning fiberglass insulation (which for years used the Pink Panther in its advertising)  and T-Mobile.
  • Brown‘s “deeper meaning” is “warmth, safety, reliability and dependability.” Too bad Haller didn’t tell UPS that back in 1930, when they started painting all their vehicles Pullman brown because its management considered the color “neat, dignified, and professional.”

There are lots of forces in the marketplace that protect consumers from manipulation, native intelligence and common sense being two of them. But who’s going to protect them from the conterfactual theories of self-styled “experts”?

For a less sarcastic and more reality-based read on colors and branding, you might want to click here.