Can sludge-like color deter smokers? The psychology behind advertising

Muddy-colored cigarette packs in Australia also feature graphic health warnings. The UK has followed suit.

Story highlights

  • The UK now requires cigarette packs to be stripped of brightly colored branding
  • Public reportedly associates Pantone 448C with "dirty," "tar" and "death," market researchers say

(CNN)Can the sight of a greenish-brown color really be enough to deter smokers from reaching for their next pack of cigarettes?

Lawmakers in the UK seem to think so, having approved legislation that now requires all tobacco packs to be stripped of brightly colored branding -- and replaced with the sludge-like color.
    It follows similar cigarette packs already rolled out in Australia, which also feature graphic health warnings and standardized fonts.
    The muddy color -- Pantone 448C -- was chosen after marketing research company GfK Bluemoon asked Australian smokers which color they found most unappealing.
    Respondents reportedly associated the color with the words "dirty," "tar" and "death."

    Deterring bathroom breaks

    It's not the first time such a murky shade has been used to deter people, according to Angela Wright, a color consultant and author of "The Beginner's Guide to Colour Psychology."
    She cites American color consultant Faber Birren, who in the 1960s devised a way to stop department store employees taking lengthy bathroom breaks.
    "The company asked him, 'Can you improve the working area so they don't have to leave all the time and use the restrooms?' " Wright said.
    "Birren actually took a different view and painted the restrooms in a color similar to Pantone 448C. And nobody wanted to spend time in the restrooms after that."

    Is Pantone 448C really that bad?

    What makes Pantone 448C so off-putting? Wright said she believes it's the association with human waste.
    "It makes perfect sense that smoking packets would use a vile green that looks like bodily fluids and makes people feel slightly nauseated," she said.
    But not everyone agrees.
    France will also introduce plain cigarette packaging this year.
    "I actually quite like the color," said psychologist Dr. Carolyn Mair of the London College of Fashion, UAL.
    "It's an earthy, muted, rich color, very much of nature. But then I also don't smoke."

    Color in advertising

    Color plays a key role in brand perception among the public.
    "Blue is often used in services such as banking and law because of its association with loyalty, honesty and reliability," Mair said.
    Color associations

    Red: Strength, energy, passion

    Blue: Focus, loyalty, calmness

    Yellow: Ego, optimism, openness

    Green: Balance, youth, eco-friendly

    Purple: Luxury, femininity, glamour

    Sources: Angela Wright, Carolyn Mair

    Red meanwhile "raises the pulse rate ... and communicates strength and high energy," Wright said.
    "Football teams who have red uniforms are giving themselves more physical energy but also communicating to the opposite team that they are powerful and strong."
    And purple has connotations with luxury, Mair said.
    "Think of Cadbury chocolate (which has a purple logo). At least when it started out, it had the association with a glamorous, smooth, feminine brand," she added.
    Color combinations can also have powerful connotations.
    In the UK, the Esso petrol logo features red, white, and blue -- much like many national flags, including those of the United States, Great Britain and France.
    "So this combination can result in an instinctive loyalty," Wright said.

    The eye of the beholder

    That said, perception also plays a huge role -- as seen in Wright's and Mair's different responses to Pantone 448C.
    "Red could be seen as aggressive and demanding -- or as exhilarating and exciting," Wright said.
    "Similarly, blue could be perceived as calming and well-thought through -- or excessively bureaucratic and emotionless."
    And in 2016, Wright sees the overwhelming color of our times as a bleak gray.
    "Gray is the color of austerity," Wright said. "And we're going to keep wearing gray until we feel better financially."
    That is, unless you feel compelled to lighten things with a splash of Pantone 448C.