Sunday, February 11, 2018

Fast food color logo science: fake news, or real?

On Saturday morning, I found myself at the Sonic on Placentia Avenue in east Fullerton, California.

This file is copyrighted. It will be used in a way that qualifies as fair use under US copyright law.

I only mention the location because people familiar with the site know that this Sonic is near an El Pollo Loco, an In-N-Out, and a McDonald's.

The person who was with me pointed out that there was a lot of red and yellow in many fast food logos, and we were able to think of many other examples of fast food logos that used one or both of these colors. Supposedly there was a well-supported reason for use of those colors.

After returning home from Fullerton, I began consulting the research on the use of red and yellow in fast food logos - and was able to find a lot of statements, but no real research. Here is an example.

Looking at the positive psychology qualities of red & yellow in relation to the fast food industry, red triggers stimulation, appetite, hunger, it attracts attention. Yellow triggers the feelings of happiness and friendliness.

When you combine red and yellow it’s about speed, quickness. In, eat and out again.

Yellow is also the most visible colour in daylight, which is why the McDonald’s M can be seen from a far distance.

Evidence for these assertions came from studies that were conducted in...oh, none was cited.

OK, the text above was written by a marketer, and I know all about marketers. :)

But this post on the psychology of color should cite some evidence, right?

Red – Creates a sense of urgency, which is good for clearance sales. Encourages appetite, thus is frequently used by fast-food chains. Physically stimulates the body, raising blood pressure and heart rate, associated with movement, excitement, and passion....

Orange & Yellow – Cheerful colors that promote optimism. Yellow can make babies cry, while orange can trigger a sense of caution. Used to create a sense of anxiety that can draw in impulsive buyers and window shoppers.

Again, rather than saying that "red means this because these n studies have proven this association," this article seemed like a restatement of conventional wisdom. "I know this is true, because a friend of a friend told me this."

Right, and Craig Shergold still needs cards.

Color me unimpressed with the "authoritative" sources on fast food color branding that I had read to this point.

Then I encountered a paper by Andrew J. Elliot entitled Color and psychological functioning: a review of theoretical and empirical work. I skipped to the empirical section, and encountered this statement by Elliot:

Empirical work on color and psychological functioning dates back to the late 19th century (Féré, 1887; see Pressey, 1921, for a review). A consistent feature of this work, from its inception to the past decade, is that it has been fraught with major methodological problems that have precluded rigorous testing and clear interpretation (O’Connor, 2011). One problem has been a failure to attend to rudimentary scientific procedures such as experimenter blindness to condition, identifying, and excluding color deficient participants, and standardizing the duration of color presentation or exposure. Another problem has been a failure to specify and control for color at the spectral level in manipulations. Without such specification, it is impossible to know what precise combination of color properties was investigated, and without such control, the confounding of focal and non-focal color properties is inevitable (Whitfield and Wiltshire, 1990; Valdez and Mehrabian, 1994).

Elliot did note, however, that the situation is improving, and cited a Lauren Labrecque / George Milne paper as an example. The authors conducted four empirical tests, the first of which specifically controlled for hue:

To examine the relationship between hue, which refers to the wavelength of a color and what a person typically notes when describing a color (e.g., red, blue, yellow), and brand personality in the context of logo design, we hold the value and saturation levels constant across colors. Although some logos use multiple colors, we rely on single colors to isolate the color effects.

Since you obviously can't use a real multi-colored logo for such a test, the authors created their own logo. They then conducted a study with a precisely-measured group of undergraduate students, and came up with these results.

So what does the study say about red and yellow? It turns out that these colors, as well as orange, display a positive association with excitement. (Yellow is also associated with sincerity in this study.) This seems to fit our assumptions, since one can claim that seeing the "golden arches" makes us excited.

But what of ruggedness? Some of these fast food places have offerings that appeal to a rugged personality, someone who would growl for a Double Double with Animal Fries. But look at the numbers - red has practically no correlation with ruggedness, and orange and yellow are negatively correlated with ruggedness.

So what color exhibits a high positive correlation with ruggedness?


Yeah, when I go to Starbucks and order my chai latte, I'm more rugged than the Marlboro Man.

Sophie G., via the Yelp entry for the Mansfield, Texas Starbucks

Going back to Elliot, he has performed a lot of research on color, but his most famous bit of research has nothing to do with Animal Fries. The work that merited mention in Wikipedia was a study co-authored by Elliot, Women's use of red clothing as a sexual signal in intersexual interaction.

Well, Dr. Elliot, I still think that the Hot Dog on a Stick uniform is ugly.
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