"It appears that under certain conditions, advertisers may realise double benefits by employing less costly black and white rather than colour advertising and simultaneously achieve enhanced ad effectiveness."
Journal of Consumer Research. Vol 22 page 135.
The general belief is that colour is good - use full colour in an advert and the response rate goes up. Indeed there are regular campaigns by printers and designers that say “full colour illustrations increase response rates by over 95%”. Such campaigns never say where their figures come from – although they often encourage readers to quote the figures on Twitter.
Such beliefs are wrong – colour is much more complex than that. Colour can help, but it also can destroy response rates. It all depends on what else is going on at the same time.
The definitive academic study on this is the article by Joan Meyers-Levy and Laura A Peracchio (from the universities of Chicago and Wisconsin respectively) which appeared in Journal of Consumer Research Volume 22. Practical studies which compare response rates with and without colour back up the academic findings, although it is the academic approach which has allowed us to develop the complete theory of colour and predict what will and what won't work.
A typical scenario
Some years ago I wrote and designed an advert for a company which has worked fairly well ever since. Not a sensational hit, but enough to make the company money. Over the years I suggested some changes and experimentation but by and large the company was happy and too busy to make the changes, and generally they did not feel the need to change.
But then along came a printer-designer who said - "you are wasting your time here. Whoever told you to work in one colour is an idiot. You need full colour. Everyone knows colour sells - spend some money with us and you'll be amazed at response rates." And so that's what they did.
Of course it cost the company three times as much to prepare and produce the advert - and, as we predicted, the sales collapsed to just 10% of their previous level.
To make sure there is no misunderstanding here, the customer was getting around 1% sales rate in his postal campaign with one colour, and this dropped to 0.1% response rate with full colour.
I have seen it happen many times, and have actually been on the receiving end of it myself when two members of the publishing company that is part of the Hamilton House group decided to change the adverts that the Creative Team had produced. They went their own way with colour and much higher levels of design, and once again the results collapsed. It is a common phenomenon.
We’ve also seen it happen over and over with emails and websites. Colour can be good – but only in certain circumstances.
Why and how colour can destroy response rates
As Meyers-Levy and Peracchio point out early in their academic article, "Understanding the effects of colour", when readers of an advert have little motivation to look at the advert, their attitude to the product will tend to be influenced by simple things such as the colour and the physical attractiveness of the presentation. So initially the unmotivated reader becomes more positive about the piece, and there is a more positive response from two or four colour than from single colour.
This is of course what designers and printers who push colour in all circumstances instinctively feel - the colour makes the advert more attractive. And indeed, if the reader is unmotivated, then feels the advert is attractive because of colour and then places an order, the colour should be enhancing the response rates.
But in most cases the sales process in direct mail, on the internet and via email does not work remotely like this. Firstly, we are not normally sitting in an unmotivated state, just waiting for something to happen. We are engaged in other things - our brain power is being used up elsewhere. Second, even if we are sitting there with nothing much happening in our brains, for most of us, purchases are made only after we look more critically and extensively at the advertisement and its claims.
The Meyers-Levy article says, when we are "motivated to process an ad critically and extensively with an eye toward substantiating the ad's assertions, it appears that colour may have one or two effects. On the one hand colour can use up lots of brain power and that can once again make us feel good about the advert. Alternatively, colour may undermine ad claim substantiation by usurping resources that would otherwise have been devoted to processing substantiating information."
In other words, at the moment we are looking to substantiate the claims of the advert so that we can move to a purchase, the colour uses up so much of the resources in the brain we are willing to give to the processing of this issue, that we feel too much is asked of us, and we simply stop and turn away.
In simple terms, if distractions are low and the reader feels a real need and desire to look at the advert, colour is a great boon - providing that we are willing to give the brain the resources needed to decode the advert, and provided also we are not going to want to consider in any depth the claims made by the advert . The travel brochure is a perfect example - I want to go on holiday, I have gone out and got a brochure from the travel agent, and I sit down at home without distraction, totally focussed on finding the holiday of my dreams, and fairly sure that this is the country I want to go to. Colour then helps - as long as all this holds to the good.
But if I am of a disbelieving mind, if I have been on holidays before where the promise of the brochure is not substantiated, then the colour pictures can be a distraction, and I might turn to the Lonely Planet for a pure text discussion of the resort - without the unwanted distractions.
The disbelieving reader
So, although the motivated reader might be helped to believe even more by colour, even a highly motivated reader can, on occasion, find colour too much.
But much of the time we are not motivated, we are unmotivated. For the person at work surrounded by interruptions, receiving a cold mailshot through the post, motivation to read is very low and distractions are high. I am not ready to give over enough information to process the colour, and so I stop reading and junk the mailshot.
Everyday observation suggests high motivation to read mailshots is rare. We live in a world of ever increasing events - you will read elsewhere the suggestion that we now experience an incredible 3000 advertisements a day. Is it really possible that anybody today is sitting around waiting for an advertisement to pop into our laps?
If you would like to discuss marketing in terms of colour (or indeed anything else) please do get in touch on 01536 399 000, or by writing to Chris@hamilton-house.com There is more about our work on www.hamilton-house.com
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