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The Psychology of Color : Seeing Red

More info: (h/t: shutterstock.com Mark Myerson )

A scientist would tell you that the color red is one of the longer wavelengths in the visible light spectrum. It is also one of the three additive primary colors that can combine to produce most other hues — hence our digital devices are tuned to red, green, and blue.

But these definitions do not do justice to the color. Whether it’s the sight of blood on the ground or the fall leaves above our heads, red is truly evocative.

For the purposes of marketing, such an emotionally powerful color comes both with great advantages and notable pitfalls. To understand when and where to use red, we asked Lauren Labrecque, an associate professor of digital marketing at Loyola University Chicago and a researcher on sensory marketing and design, to guide us through this vivid hue.

Historical Context

The color red is present in some of the very first artworks created by human hands. In areas with iron-rich soil, red ochre was a readily available pigment. At the time — 25,000 BC to be exact — the color probably held no more significance than black ink does for us today.

Red is present in some of the very first artworks created by human hands. Image by Chaiwut

Over time, however, red gained many cultural associations. Due to the easy availability of cinnabar (mineral mercury), the use of red pigment can be traced back to use in the Iberian peninsula region between Spain and North Africa around 5300 BC. The pigment was also used in rituals and sprinkled around burial sites in the ancient Yangshao culture of China, which dates from 3000–5000 BC. According to Labrecque, who has worked extensively on the significance of color, it’s common in Chinese culture to dress in red for special occasions such as weddings. “Red is also seen as a lucky color in India,” she says.

chinese wedding red robesIt’s common in Chinese culture to dress in red for special occasions such as weddings. Image by vvoe.

In Christian countries, the color was linked to the blood of Christ, while Buddhists believe red was one of the five colors that came from the Buddha himself. In politics, socialism and communism have built entire identities around the color. More modern cultural references link the color red with movie premières and danger signs, among other uses.

opera theater color redImage by Alexander Levitsky

Labrecque notes that such links are not set in stone. “Research on color and cultural associations finds that these associations can change with time and are malleable,“ she notes. She offers a more modern example: “People strongly associate red with the Republican Party and blue with the Democratic Party, but these colors didn’t emerge until the early 2000s.”

Physiological effects of red

The way we react to color is shaped not only by association, but also by hard-wired physiology. In many cases, the reasons for this are fairly obvious. Injury is often accompanied by blood, while anger or embarrassment may cause a flushed face.

In accordance with these biological occurrences, exposure to the color red causes physiological reactions. “Red has been shown to increase heart rate and blood pressure,” Labrecque says. “Psychologically speaking, red is considered arousing, exciting, and stimulating.” These physiological effects usually go unnoticed, but they can have a significant impact on our thinking.

woman in african robes color redImage by Vasily Deyneka

Other notable research conducted at the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Greece found that the competitors in combat sports who wore red were more likely to win.

Applying the theory

Almost unanimously, research asserts that the color red provokes strong emotions. Indeed, the human brain really struggles to ignore anything red. Through the eyes of a marketer, these words look incredibly inviting — but there are a few pros and cons to consider.

First, the pros. One of Labrecque’s research projects was an attempt to discover how consumers react to various colors. There are many interesting findings in the paper, but there is one major takeaway: “My research on branding shows that red can be used strategically by brands to elicit an exciting brand personality.”

Excitement

Netflix logo from underconsideration.com. Nintendo logo from nintendolife.com. Red Bull logo from en.wikipedia.org.

Many successful companies have embraced this theory over the years when it comes to logo design. Consumers have undoubtedly found excitement in Nintendo games, Netflix blockbusters, and Red Bull energy drinks. Brands like Virgin America, Ferrari, and Rolling Stone are all built on identities of a thrilling customer experience. Red comes in handy here.

Appetite

Red tends to be a color used widely in the restaurant industry. Image by Ken Wolter

In addition, red is often used effectively for marketing and branding within specific niches. “Red tends to be a color used widely in the restaurant industry,” says Labrecque. “This is due to the arousing capabilities of red, [equating to] increased appetite.” Just think of the major U.S. fast-food chains: McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, KFC – all of them use red heavily in their branding. The same idea can be applied to products relating to love and lust.

Sales

Red has been shown to increase the perception of savings. Image by yougoigo

You will also find red used at the point of sale. “Red brings out aggression in online auctions, causing people to outbid [each other],” says Labrecque. “Red has also been shown to increase the perception of savings, compared to black,” she says, referring to in-store discounts. “Interestingly, this effect was only found for male shoppers.”

Anxiety

Furthermore, it is possible to raise the blood pressure of your customers for all the wrong reasons. Labrecque offers her own observations: “Stores that use a lot of red and highly saturated colors at the checkout tend to increase anxiety and decrease patience.”

Finally, it must be noted that “red” does not refer to one specific hue. Labrecque’s research indicates that bolder shades of any color provoke greater excitement than more subtle tones. Along with color theory, this might explain why so many companies that choose red branding opt for vibrant shades.

The Power of Red

Of all colors, red is perhaps the most striking and provocative. Unlike many alternative hues, it has proven links to physiological reactions and various emotional responses. Marketers and marketeers may be able to use the color to enhance feelings of excitement or stir primal urges. Of course, the rules of branding still apply — brand recognition is the most important consideration. You can think of red as simply one of the more powerful tools at your disposal.

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The WebRecital is a dedicated User Interface/User Experience professionals who come together to provide design and research workshops, portfolio reviews, and educational outreach to the greater Seattle area.
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