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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.