Colour-conscious, Are We?

I have observed many new conscious biases and prejudices in the world of work for so many years now, that I wonder if this is just a trend or something more enduring. If it’s the latter, we ought to have reasons to be seriously concerned. It is recent, irrational and to that extent speaks of an intolerance that is quite stupid and senseless. And sadly, it is most visible in my own industry of advertising and brand communications.

A lot of it comes from the unprofessional circuses that I have had the misfortune of having worked for, 18 and 16 years ago in India. That circus has also unfortunately gone global, in pandering to the very same prejudiced folk. There are many biases, including those regarding women and especially women who know their work well and are in a position to lead. I have addressed some of this in my post on what it means to be a woman professional in India. In this article, I would like to concentrate on biases related to colour.

Colours have a role to play in communications and we in advertising and brand communications, know this well. They help to communicate what a company stands for, what emotion lies behind the communication, they communicate a subject of interest, a state of being, etc. On the last one, people who are familiar somewhat with the world of art, even if you are not an artist, will know that Picasso went through several periods in his art career, the notable ones being the blue period and the rose period.  A connection on LinkedIn shared an article of his recently which dealt with the subject of how colours communicate an important aspect of a brand. I agreed with him, and commented that while they do fulfil that role, colours should not be taken to ridiculous extents that they have been in recent years. I will address that in a minute.

When brands choose their colours, it is usually on the basis of how they would like to position themselves in people’s minds. The choice of colours, therefore, comes after a strategy has been devised. Besides, there is always a context in which brands use colours and in which they are meant to be understood.

I am not a designer or an art director in advertising but a writer and a thinker of brand strategy. However, I think IBM, which started out with making punching cards before progressing to more advanced forms of information technology chose blue as their colour, based on the lines/stripes a la computer printouts of the old days. Similarly, the American Express logo of the blue box comes from the fact that they are in the travel and payments processing business, besides being a bank. And you have a box out of the bright blue sky.

In India, the brand colour of the Tata Group would have come from their corporate values as well as blue-sky thinking. The reds and yellows of the Aditya Birla Group come from the fact that their logo depicts the sun. The black and gold of Reliance Industries derives from their oil and gas industry, which in a sense is black gold.

When we place too much emphasis on colours and burden them with meanings that were never intended, we put too much pressure on them and in the process either miscommunicate, or deplete them of meaning. Let me address some of the main prejudices that have arisen in this area.

Blues and pinks. That women should only wear pinks and reds and leave the men to wear blues is an age-old problem in many societies, including in India. In today’s world, though, men and women wear both colours quite comfortably and in many shades. There are the prejudiced ones who go to the extent of believing and propagating the theory that if one doesn’t wear pinks and reds, you have no blood coursing through your veins, that you aren’t warm as a person, that you are not even human. To prove that you are human, you must wear red. On the other hand, you have those who think that to wear red is tarty, to attract undue attention, and so on.

What both sides of the argument miss, however, is that it’s not just the colour, but the shade, how it appears, how it’s worn, at what time of day or evening, on what occasion, and the finer nuances that matter. Of course, there are super-extrapolators, those who will take a colour from, say, clothes, and extend it to book covers, wall-interiors, cars, and so on. And to them, I say, every colour and shade has its right place and time. Perhaps some people like driving red cars or living inside red walls. I don’t, though I do wear red occasionally.

Packaging designs that mischievously colour-code black and red with gold, and brown with silver; Image: the author’s

Deep dislike for brown. The colour of the earth, burdened with an age-old problem again. That of racism this time. We in India are known to be among the most racist of people, never mind that so many of us are dark-skinned ourselves. The dislike for brown, however, extends to other dimensions like people’s names for example. Divine Brown, remember? What about other Browns I wonder, like Gordon Brown, and Bobbi Brown? If people have to face racist and sexist attitudes when wearing brown, do people who are surnamed Brown have to face the same ignominy? You can also see how brown and black are used in packaging designs and book covers to hint at precious metals and therefore, jewellery. Gold or silver? I wear all kinds, including beads and pearls, and like my mother who passed away just over a year ago, I am not big on jewellery.

Black and white. This one is for absolutists who believe that there are no finer nuances to be considered. No shades of grey. On greys, I will have more to say later in the article. Ever since print and movie technology brought us colour on pages and on our screens, would you opt to go back to black and white? Nothing wrong with black and white in communication and I have myself used it in many advertising campaigns in the past. It usually lends itself best to advertising for social causes, where one needs to present a grave situation. I have used it in campaigns for the Indian government’s income tax department, as well as a campaign for a better Delhi, where in both these cases, black and white helped communicate the seriousness and gravity of the subject. Ironically, while the print medium has shifted to colour long ago, one still uses black and white to conjure the seriousness and news-like qualities of newspapers. I have also used it in a campaign for Seagram corporate, which was meant to educate Indian consumers on the finer aspects of selecting and consuming good whisky.

There are also sexist attitudes, towards black and white separately. White is seen as a symbol of virginal purity while black means a woman is no longer a virgin. Black can be used to connote black money, but to be “in the black” usually means to make profits, or to be in solvent condition. I must mention here, that while I worked briefly with Perfect Relations in Delhi in 2006-07, an art director from McCann Erickson who was the advertising agency for MasterCard sent me a layout for a brochure design that was meant for a MasterCard Consumer Confidence Survey reveal at an event. The cover was mostly red, so I pointed out to him that perhaps there’s too much red in the design for a financial services brand and we don’t want to be suggesting “in the red”. I am not sure he took kindly to my criticism and advice, but to his credit he did rework the brochure cover.   

There has also been an attempt to use black and white in advertising and brand communications that is based on pre-meditated nonsense to make me someone else, like an editor or trainer. No, thank you, I am not any Firoz Unwalla or anyone like that. And I know that I often photograph much darker than I actually am, but I still wouldn’t hide behind the veneer of black and white to conceal the actual colour of my skin. And this entire colour-coded nonsense has gone to such ridiculous extents that I had to share a collage of my old photographs on social media to say that there are many shades of me, and those who are judging me on the basis of the colour of my skin or what colours I wear, are barking up the wrong tree.

Take a look at this book that my father ordered from Amazon over a year ago. Not only is the colour-coded design with so much gold on black mischief, but so is the publisher; you have to see the second image in the slide-show below to see the name of the publisher. I have read The Odyssey in full and even written about it on my blog. Would love to read the Iliad too in full, having read an abridged version ages ago, but I am not sure of the content of this edition.

Greys. Not “What greys?” as the Loreal hair colour models say in the adverts. Again, based on old photographs of mine which went missing from my flat in Chennai 18 years ago, when I relocated from Delhi to Chennai to work for RK Swamy/BBDO for the second time, unprofessional organisations have been getting well-known authors to write terribly prejudiced nonsense against grey. In a piece by Jhumpa Lahiri that was an introduction to a book published in the New York Review of Books, which I have shared before with subscribers of my blog’s newsletter, she writes nonsense about grey including the fact that it is neither black nor white, and therefore belongs nowhere, or something to that effect. She also writes that colours come freighted with meaning, etc. which I agree with, but as I said earlier, overburdening colours with meaning, robs them of any. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same unprofessional organisations have also got a trashy book called Fifty Shades of Grey written and published and then also got The Economist to publish a review of it. It is from reading the review that I know it is trashy, and I am surprised that The Economist even chose to review such a book. Then again, they also reviewed Casual Vacancy, the trashy book that the same idiots got JK Rowling to write and which I wrote about on my blog.

Colours are extremely subjective and what appeals to one person might not appeal to another. However, when it comes to the business of brands and communication, one has to try and be as objective and rational as possible on the use of colours, their exact shades, etc. I personally like grey since it is a neutral colour, as is black, white and beige, and these usually pair well with most other colours. Getting other people to write prejudiced nonsense obviously emanates from the deep prejudices that these unprofessional idiots themselves have against certain people, their physical appearances, etc. So much of this is perhaps nonsense to try and make me Sarada, my old colleague at Ogilvy whom I hired, or my aged father or my younger sister, Bhavani.

To those who think of grey as grey area, belonging nowhere, grey market, etc, I say grey matter and grey cells!

A few of my silk sarees, for which I have been ridiculed; Image: the author’s

India is otherwise, a land of colours and the brighter the better! This seems to be true for most tropical countries, from those in Latin America and Africa to East Asia, that they are partial to bright colours and bold prints. With perhaps some exceptions such as Assam and Kerala, Indian states where the land is lush green and people mostly wear whites and off-whites.

Blues and greens. These are cool, fresh colours, and probably too cool for some. For such people, these are not the colours of nature, blue skies, blue lakes and oceans, green forests, and so on. Oh no, these are the colours of dairy, milk, cows grazing on meadows, etc. They are the colours of farming, and farmers. To the extent that if one wears blues or greens – and I admit I wear both and so did my late mother – we become cow-like or bovine in some way. Besides, green is also a colour strongly associated with muslims, so it must always be shunned. We also become cold people, with no blood in our veins. Perhaps the best rejoinder one can give such irrational idiots is to claim blue blood then!

Yellows. The colour of sunshine, of gold, of amber whisky, of honey, and so many wonderful things to treasure. People have a bias against this colour as it represents a decaying of life, as in green leaves turning to yellow or pages yellowing with age. Or perhaps a jaundiced person, when it is these folk who have a terribly jaundiced view of life and people. This has gone to such ridiculous extents as well that the very same Casual Vacancy written by JK Rowling came in a yellow and black jacket, which seems to have gone missing. They have also meddled with books in my luggage that were in storage at the packers and movers’ warehouse in Chennai for many months in 2004-05. To the extent that the contents of some books were completely altered and put back in my luggage as if they were the old books. My copy of Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor had a lady describing a yellow, furry character sitting next to her through large sections of the book.

These unprofessional idiots have a problem not merely with colour, but with certain colour combinations and it’s amazing how they can make these stand for certain people. Just like I can become my aged father when I wear brown, I can become my old friend and sister-in-law, Gargi, if I wear blue and black, or my other friend Priya Christian if I wear pastel sea green. I can even become a dishwasher if I wear yellow and green, because those are the pack colours of Vim, you see.

Magic! You can make anyone become anyone else or even an animal, based on colours. If not an animal, a queer person, an LGBTQ then. Like mixing red and blue to arrive at purple and therefore the female and the male, going back to what I started this article with: reds and pinks for women and blues for men. It never occurs to these people that purple is a colour used for royalty, irrespective of gender. As far as brands are concerned, purple and gold are the colours of Cadbury. Also, the colours of Liberty London, the department store, where I bought my Waterman fountain pens ages ago!

Jhumpa Lahiri wrote some more nonsense about colours in her book, Whereabouts, which I also reviewed on my blog. Choosing whether to wear purple or green tights under a skirt. There are two biases at work here: colour and form of clothing. Women don’t wear pants, in Jhumpa Lahiri’s world, it appears. Besides wondering who wears coloured tights under skirts, my thoughts turned to Wimbledon, the tennis grand slam tournament instead. Purple and green are the colours of Wimbledon.

What about the film, The Colour Purple, directed by Steven Spielberg, that depicts the life of a poor Black family in America? Or the old blues song that goes: “What did I do / To be so black and blue?”

What’s that, they’d ask.

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