Could the world’s ugliest color discourage smoking?

Plain packaging on cigarettes, particularly if it's in an unappealing color, can deter would-be smokers, research has found. 

Illustration by Eoin O'Carroll
The color Pantone 448 C, alternatively known as 'opaque couché' and 'drab dark brown' has been determined by researchers to be the least appealing known color, which is why the Australian government is proposing requiring it to be the color of cigarette packaging.

Could drabness help deter smoking?

On May 30, “World No Tobacco Day,” the World Health Organization (WHO) called on all countries to “Get ready for plain packaging.” It was a prod for America and other nations to follow the 2012 packaging example pioneered by Australia. Ireland, the United Kingdom, and France have followed suit over the past two years.

Plain packaging restricts logos, colors, brand images and promotional information on packages.

“New evidence from Australia, the first country to fully implement plain packaging, shows that changes to tobacco packaging there led to over 100,000 fewer smokers in Australia in the first 34 months since implementation in 2012,” writes Margaret Chan, director-general of WHO in a statement.

Since the 2012 packaging change, there’s been a drop of 11 percent in tobacco sales, according to Australia’s Department of Health. By 2015, the department reported that 14.7 of adults aged 18 years and over smoked daily (approximately 2.6 million smokers), a decrease from 16.1 percent in 2011-2012.

Part of the success is being attributed to a study done in 2012 by research agency GfK which was hired by the Australian government to help make cigarette packaging as unappealing as possible. The study found that Pantone 448 C, also called "opaque couché," was considered the most repellent on the spectrum and thus incorporated into packaging.

GfK spent three months generating seven studies with more than 1,000 regular smokers.

Alexander Schauss, director of AIBMR Life Sciences, in Puyallup, Wash., who pioneered studies in the connection between color and emotion in the 1960s, says in a telephone interview that he would have preferred to see research done on non-smokers as well as smokers in order to get a result that could be more predictive of whether it will curb attraction. 

"Smokers are addicted and they're used to associating negativity, guilt, even shame over their addiction and being judged for that by others, with this particular color which reminds me of tobacco," Dr. Schaus says. "So the color has an association for them that those not addicted may not have."

But experts say that if laws are passed that mandate uniformly plain packaging there is a very good chance it will pay off with a reduction in new smokers.

“Color influences our buying decisions 87 percent of the time,” says color and marketing expert Kate Smith of Sensational Color in a telephone interview. “I’m not sure in this particular case, but I think there’s a pretty good chance it may work. It’s worth a try.”

Adam Alter, associate professor of marketing at the NYU Stern School of Business and the author of "Drunk Tank Pink," writes in an email interview, “Yes, there's good evidence that plain packaging deters people from smoking.”

“Australia has been using the same brown packaging for some time, and a review of two dozen studies showed that it deters smoking – and also seems to make the cigarettes taste worse, which was an unexpected side-effect of the repackaging,” Prof. Alter writes. “A cigarette that comes from an ugly brown box will, similarly, seem less appealing for the same reason. We associate that brown color with so many negative substances and ideas that the cigarette comes to take on those negative associations as well. I certainly think it should be tried in America.”

Bevil Conway, an associate professor of visual neuroscience at Wellesley College, says in a telephone interview that color isn’t likely to overcome addiction. It won’t deter those who are already smokers, but it could be very useful in shutting down impulses of young, potential smokers.

“Smokers will go to great lengths to get cigarettes,” Professor Conway says. “The goal here, I suspect, is that by reducing the attractiveness of the packaging and that I think is justified. I think there’s good reason for that. In terms of what people care about, color is an important and underappreciated piece of that.”

Conway adds, “If you’re a kid and you walk into a convenience store and see all these beautiful, vibrant colors on Skittles packaging and candy and then you see fuchsia pink packaging and red on cigarettes you say, ‘Wow, what is that? I want that,’” Dr. Conway says. “It’s that initial moment that I suspect they’re trying to turn off.”

Conway points out that “It would have to be a level playing field for it to be truly effective. If you have a shelf full of colorful, glittery, packaging and one box in opaque couché, then that box probably would not sell as well as the others.”

“The military chose this color for a reason,” he adds. “They want to be background. They don’t want to be seen. So this is a good choice to undermine the appeal of the product.”

Conway says that Pantone 448 C’s ugliness isn’t so much in the eye of the beholder as the context of the object being seen.

“If you’re in the forest and you’re walking around and see that shade of moss on the floor you like it,” he says. “But if you’re in the store looking for a piece of meat and it’s that color you’d say, ‘Yaaagh, what’s wrong with that?’”

Sadly, it does give olives a bad rap, Conway says, “The original name for 448C ‘olive’ is misleading because the color doesn't appear to have the richness and vibrancy we associate with olives, especially because the color doesn't capture the vital texture of the olive. I can see why the olive lobby would object!”

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