Colour psychology in sponsored films and videos

No Clue. But lots of it.

Color psychology in sponsored films
Color psychology in sponsored films

While the professional evaluation of colours and thus the work with colour concepts is essential in almost all marketing and communication disciplines at sales-relevant contact points, makers of commissioned films still use colours as if they were primitive cavemen.

Unfortunately this also applies to TV commercials as well as image films, product films and online videos. The very first technicolour film in history was made much earlier in 1902. It showed the children of the photographer Edward Turner, sitting around a goldfish bowl. Since then, 114 years have passed and still the use of colour in sponsored films and video communication is as if the technology was invented yesterday! Directors and clients usually decide instinctively on the colour design. The knowledge that the colouration of a film is much more than a question of fashion or personal taste is lacking.  Research on perception and psychology proves that the impact of colour in a film is much more than a physical niche phenomenon. It’s not without reason that colours and film have something important in common: neither can exist without light. Here come some more basics for filmmakers:

Colour and film

For physicists it’s simple – colours are light that is perceived by the eye. Light consists of electromagnetic waves that are filtered or reflected. The eye can only perceive wave lengths between 380 and 780 nanometres. Colours are defined as having three elements: colour tone, brightness and saturation.

In contrast to reality and even theatre plays, the perception of colours in film goes through additional filter levels before the eye processes any information. Image recording devices, possible data compression and the type and configuration of the playback device all contribute to the perception of colours. Even though technology is constantly evolving, measurements continue to show that the colour value of a finished film or video varies enormously even on identical end devices, be they televisions, tablets or mobile phones. And that’s not all.

Colour rather than shape has the closest relationship with our emotions. David Katz

The perception of colours in film doesn’t just change depending on the playback technology. It is also influenced by the components of the object we are looking at and from the current light intensity and colour temperature. More importantly however, perception depends on how our brain processes this information. Concretely, that means that not everyone perceives colours in the same way. And that is also the reason why even today no one can say how many colour tones a person can actually perceive. To take this complexity to extremes, today’s medicine knows that around 10% of men and 50% of women are not born with the usual three photo receptors but with four. This means that they perceive shades of yellow, orange and red differently to the rest of us.

With this in mind, it is no longer surprising that both Goethe and Newton were wrong with their colour theories. This complexity may also be a reason why there is surprisingly little known about colour theory in films and the effect of colours. Short studies on the dramatic or aesthetic significance of colours are difficult to find. However, there is no standard reference. This is also significant as perception researchers (Welsch/Liebmann, 2003) have assumed for more than a decade that during our everyday perception of things, we decode at least forty percent (40%!) of all visual information via colours. An even bigger part of this visual information is conveyed by moving images. The amount of video used as a means of communication is growing inexorably with no end in sight. Instead, it is refuelled again and again by new developments in visual storytelling such as virtual reality (VR).

Strangely, when it comes to commissioned films (almost) everything is discussed except for the risks and the colours. A corporate design manual cannot replace colour dramaturgy and a look that is cool in the eyes of a creative worker is by no means a colour concept. In other areas of visual communication and marketing, a knowledgeable and professional approach to colours and their effect has long since enjoyed a high priority. And it’s not just because the world of conditioning in marketing has changed fundamentally due to disruption and digitalisation. In order to illustrate the potential that a targeted approach with colours can have in the area of moving image communication, it’s worth looking beyond the perimeters of film and video.

Why colour psychology in film really matters!

As early as the 1950s, the American packaging industry communicated that the decoding of colours is also contingent on social positioning and cultural factors. For example, on the British market the colour violet is seen by all social classes as as a synonym for luxury and quality. However, in China and Taiwan it signifies the exact opposite!

The importance of colours, particularly in relation to brands and product words, is leading more and more companies to legally protect their own colours. For example, Christian Louboutin wanted to protect their well-known red soles as a USP. The company has unsuccessfully sued both YSL and Zara for also selling shoes with red soles. The judge ruled that colours, like letters and words, should be freely available for everyone.

According to a 2004 study, colours play an important role in purchasing decisions for 92% of all people in the western world. 84% said that the colour of a product would be an important selling point. Compare these figures with 6% who said that how a product feels would be a decisive criterium for making a purchase and 1% who said that sound and smell would be important. (Music and perfume were of course excluded). The fewer distinguishing features the product has and the less of a preexisting connection there is, the more important the colour. This applies in particular when the decision to make a purchase has to be made in a very short period of time – not an unusual customer requirement in a TV commercial.

It’s not without reason that colours and film have something important in common: neither can exist without light.videothink

Before we look at the female readership of Roullet’s 2006 study in depth – which proves that the effect of colours has a much stronger effect a woman’s purchasing incentive that it does on a man’s – let’s take a look at the world of online retail. Scientists (Kim/Moon, Bagchi/Cheema, 2013) proved that the influence of colours is directly correlated to purchasing behaviour. However, Google realised this a year before the study. In 2012, the Californian-based company randomly tested 50 slightly different shades of blue for commercial links. That means that anyone – you or me – may have unconsciously taken part in this test. Google measured the frequency of clicks on these commercial links in combination to their test colours. The result was announced at a public conference (Source: Guardian, 2013). The evaluation and the final switch to a new, unobtrusive blue led to a profit increase of $USD 200 million.

Colours and their effect are seldom left to chance – except in commissioned films. Sixty years ago, Procter & Gamble had the idea of mixing non-effective coloured particles in with their unspectacular white washing powder in an attempt to increase profits. For testing purposes, identical washing powders were given to three test groups. One group received a powder containing yellow particles, the second group got red and the third group was given blue. Laboratory tests had proven that these coloured particles had absolutely no effect on the washing cycle. This test was repeated a dozen times over and always came up with the same result: The yellow powder ‘did not wash well’, the red powder actually ‘damaged’ the washing and the blue powder produced the ‘cleanest’ results. (Source: Grossman/Wisenblit, 2001).


Anyone who was expecting the conclusion of this article to contain a list of ‘successful’ colours will be disappointed. To expect a simple way to solve problems where there are only complex questions is one of the seven deadly sins.  Yes, there are proven success drivers, dozens of studies and good reference examples also for film and video. But no! It would be grossly negligent to generalise these success values in order to turn them into a universal concept. Intelligent, effective concepts are like a pair of tailor-made shoes; the person they are made for will be walking on air, but on the wrong feet the same pair of shoes will cause blisters after just a few steps.

In Victor Flemming’s classic The Wizard of Oz (1939), Dorothy and her dog Toto literally enter the world of technicolour. A little later, confused, overwhelmed and fearful of the variety and brightness of this world and all that it signifies, Dorothy wishes she was back in the black-and-white past of Kansas. Of course, every film maker and every communicator who is using the power of film and video has to decide whether they want to emulate Judy Garland’s character from the Wizard of Oz and stick to a monochrome world. If they don’t they won’t be missing out on anything. They’ll be missing out on a great deal.

Selection of recommend films that feature flawless use of colour:
HERO Directed by: Zhang Yimous
TROIS COULEURS: BLEU/BLANC/ROUGE Directed by: Kristof Kieslowski
MEMENTO Directed by: Christopher Nolan
HABLE CON ELLA Directed by: Pedro Almodovar
TUVALO Directed by: Veit Helmer
DELICTATESSEN Directed by: Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Studies on color psychology

Über Kristian Widmer 27 Artikel

Kristian Widmer (49) is Executive Producer and CEO of Condor Films Ltd. He has been advising customers on film and video for 23 years.

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