When Green Is Blue:  How Culture, Language and Brand distort our vision.


In the morning we wake up and the light from the window filters through our sleepy eyes and magic happens.  A world of color opens up before us.   When we describe the colors we see there is general agreement from others about what those colors in fact are – You say you see ‘blue’ and your friends agree, you say ‘green’ and they nod their heads.  That is normally because the people we speak to are from the same culture and speak the same language as ourselves. 


However, other people do not always see the same colors that we do.  A case in point: I clearly remember the day I went with my wife to buy kitchen tiles and I discovered that the man who sold us the kitchen tiles, my wife and every woman in the tile shop could see a range of colors that I could not.  That day I discovered that there are many ‘whites’ as opposed to one.  They thought I was being difficult, I thought they had superhuman powers.  I still believe that there is one white and one black and everything in between is grey.   I have been informed however by my wife that my kitchen is tiled with broken eggshell and flecks of evening snow and not just “white with grey bits”.


Most people accept that shades of individual colors are open to a certain amount of interpretation.  What is less understood is that even the most basic of primary and secondary colors can be seen differently depending on the people who are looking at them.   For some people you meet “blue” is not always “blue” and “green” is not always “green”.  Why not?   This difference in color perception happens because we do not simply ‘see’ colors as they are, we also interpret them with our mind – the most subjective lens of all.  And that means language, culture and marketing all play their part.


In this article we are going to take at a little drop of biology, a little drop of psychology, a few shades of culture, a tint of language and a darker hue or two of brands to create a more complete spectrum of how we really perceive color.


Biology and Psychology:  A distorted view of color from the word ‘go’.


Biologically we are already at a disadvantage.  For most people yellows and reds seem brighter but that is simply because we have more receptors in our eyes that are triggered by those colors so our minds register them as being brighter.  The color blue actually carries more energy.  Secondly, when you overlay blue and yellow light the resulting combination is seen as green.  We have known this for so long that it seems obvious.  Yet we would be extremely surprised if our hearing worked the same way.  Imagine if you could hear the sound of a dog barking when you play Mozart and a police siren at the same time?  However that is precisely the auditory equivalent of getting the color green from blue and yellow.  So our eyes are already (mis-)interpreting the situation before our minds even get involved.


So we have biology against us, how about psychology?  To show you just how easy it can be to change someone’s perception of color an experiment was carried out studying the effect of minority groups on perception.  A group of people were asked to take part in an experiment where they had to guess specific colors.  Imagine you are one of the people in the room when certain colors are flashed up on the screen.  At one point the color blue is flashed up on the screen.  You are about to say ‘blue’ when someone else says ‘green’ loudly and clearly.  You look at it again surprised but the person does seem very convinced and you start to doubt your own judgment.   Perhaps you then say ‘green’ like the outspoken person.  This happens several more times and you repeat what the rest of the group increasingly says.  The experiment ends.  Afterwards when you see what before you thought was blue you now believe it to be green. 


In this particular experiment the people who were running the study actually discovered that the individuals involved (of course the outspoken people were confederates of the experimenter) not only changed their decision to reflect the group in the moment, they actually changed their perception internally of the color and that change stayed with them when the experiment ended.[i]


So, if it is this easy to change someone’s perception of color with an impromptu group that you have had no connection with then you can understand how much our ideas of color might be influenced by the culture we grow up in and by the people we trust from an early age.


We have just started and we can already see that the issue of color is no longer so black and white… (yes, pun intended)


Greens and Reds and Culture.


Of course ‘Green’ is not just the objective color ‘green’ (which we have already seen can also change pretty quickly).   The color Green also has connotations and symbolism which come to mind the moment we see the color or even hear it being said.   Green (and colors in general) carries an emotional resonance, memories and stimuli with it.  For me it conjures up images of home, patriotism, and St. Patrick’s day.  For many Muslims it is intimately connected with Islam.  For others it is the color of envy, while in Spanish a “green old man” (un viejo verde) translates into English as a ‘dirty old man’.  Our eyes see one thing but our brains add layers of meaning that come straight from our personal experiences and our information base - a large component of which is cultural. 


Red is another example of the huge cultural significance of a color.  Enter brief history lesson:  After the demise of the Roman Empire and with it the deep imperial purple worn by the Emperor, red became the new color of power.  By the 16th century the perfect red was the bright scarlet red that the Spanish still have in their flag.  This could only be made by the cochinilla insect that lived on cacti found in Mexico, part of the Spanish Empire at the time.  The Spanish controlled the source of this ‘perfect red’ and at one point it was worth much more than its weight in gold.  It became a symbol of power and strength and much sought after.   The fact that the Spanish army was able to incorporate so much of it into their uniforms and flags was a testament to their power at that time.  It was not just a color, it was a symbol, and a massively effective one[ii].   That red was not about St. Valentine’s day and Christmas.


Cultures always act as filters of the world around us, and when it comes to color this is immediately apparent.    For example, the color white is used at weddings in the West but at funerals in the East. This can have a huge influence on how you decide to present your logo in other countries, or even what wrapping paper to choose for the corporate gift you are about to give.


Blues, greens, traffic lights and Language


Guy Deutscher in ‘Through the looking glass’ traces the entry of color into languages.  He states that in the ancient world before artificial dyes were invented people did not have words for the vast range of colors that we have now.  For example you would not say ‘as blue as the sky’ as the only thing that was sky blue was, literally, the sky.  It was with the entry of artificial dyes that languages began to separate out words for colors, starting with black, white and red and then moving on from there.  What is interesting from a language point of view is that blue, green and yellow divided away from each other in different ways depending on the culture and language and in some places the same word was used until quite recently for a combination of two of those three (in the ancient Greek world, “honey” could be described using a word that was equally valid for yellow or green for example.)[iv]


One of the striking examples he gives to illustrate this point is the Japanese language.  He shows how the same Japanese word was used for blue and green until relatively recently, in fact after traffic lights were introduced.  Then that word gradually came to be used only for blue and not for green.  Instead of changing the word for the color of the green traffic lights, they changed the traffic lights themselves.  This is why, Deutscher says, traffic lights in Japan are a much bluer color than they are anywhere else in the world.


He also shows how language changes our perception of color.  In most languages in the western world sky blue and navy blue are both blues (the clue is in the name!) and green is another color.  However in terms of where they are situated on the color spectrum there is the same distance between navy blue and sky blue as there is between sky blue and green.  In most western European languages however people perceive sky blue and navy blue to be closer together.  Not so in Russian which has three separate names for these three colors, with no concept like ‘blue’ uniting two of them.  When Russians are asked they place the sky blue at an equal distance between the navy blue and the green, where it should be, rather than close to the navy blue, as English, French and Spanish speakers do.


In other languages the number of colors are still reduced.  For example in neither the Shona language in Zimbabwe nor in the Boas language in Liberia is there a word that can distinguish between orange and red[v].  I can only imagine how difficult it must be to own a Tile shop in either of those languages!

In summary then - the language we speak changes our perception of color.



Purple, Yellow and brands

Colors and their meaning are not static and in an incredibly globalized world where Coca-Cola and McDonalds are joined by a thousand other brands that are known throughout the world, brands are also responsible for reflecting the supposed values of certain colors, or reinforcing those values, and occasionally of creating new values.


The fact that we use the expression ‘to see the world through rose tinted glasses’ to express the idea that we see something differently because we are happy, and somehow that happiness is related to rose colored lenses shows how we instinctively understand how color can influence our emotions.  Knowing this, many brands choose colors that elicit these emotions or are somehow connected in our minds with these emotions.  We would do well to remember however that the vast majority of these global brands have their origins in the west and the specific emotions and perceived qualities these colors evoke and possess are heavily influenced by the cultures they come from.


Very often, and without realizing it, we take snap decisions on products due to something as simple as its color and the connections we make internally with that color.  Clever marketers understand this and design their products accordingly, helping to reproduce and retransmit associations with specific colors.


So it is that Yahoo! deliberately works with the feeling that purple conjures up images of creativity and imagination while McDonalds is known for its happy, warm and optimistic yellow.   (In another study it was found that purple had associations of being inexpensive in the USA while it was considered an ‘expensive’ color in China, Japan and South Korea. I wonder how that affects Yahoo!? [vii])


What would be interesting to find out is how many of these brands help reinforce the connection between these colors and emotions, how many followed them, and how many helped create them (like Coca-Cola rebranding Santa Claus as red so many decades ago).





So what lessons can we draw from all of this? 

First, we cannot even trust our own eyes.  Second, culture and language have a huge influence on how we perceive colors and what we associate with them, and third, we should be aware of how something as simple as color can influence our perception of products.  Color is not an innocent bystander in the battle to influence our minds and it truly acts as a filter on the way we perceive the world.  And my kitchen still has white tiles with grey bits.






[i] http://www.researchgate.net/profile/Serge_Moscovici/publication/229742744_Studies_on_latent_influence_by_the_spectrometer_method_I_The_impact_of_psychologization_in_the_case_of_conversion_by_a_minority_or_a_majority/links/5439959f0cf204cab1d967a5.pdf

[ii] The Perfect Red

[iv] Through the Looking Glass, Guy Deutscher

[v] http://globalpropaganda.com/articles/TranslatingColours.pdf

[vii] http://globalpropaganda.com/articles/TranslatingColours.pdf


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