Author Vance Packard's big-brother dreamscape, The Hidden Persuaders, was an earnest discussion of how motivational research and depth-probing in the marketing strategies of the late '50s manipulated common consumers by inducing desire for certain products. "A good package design," Packard relayed, "should hypnotize a woman like a flashlight waved in front of her eyes. Some colors such as red and yellow are helpful in creating hypnotic effects."
As if jolted from a 50-year coma, or submerged by the glossy weight of AMC's Mad Men, the University of Rochester recently found that the color red not only functions to create buyer's lust in women, but also induces sexual desire.
"Red is typically thought of as a sexy color for women only," said professor Andrew J. Elliot in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. "Our findings suggest that the link between red and sex also applies to men."
Elliot surveyed women ages 18 to 43 from the United States, England, Germany and China using a series of color experiments. Subjects were shown a black-and-white photograph of a man in a polo shirt. Using a nine-point scale, subjects were asked three questions: "How attractive do you think this person is?" "How pleasant is this person to look at?" and "If I were to meet the person in this picture face to face, I would think he is attractive."
Researchers then manipulated the color and contrast of the background of the photograph or the color of the man's shirt and found that the color red functioned as a sexual signal across different presentations, targets, genders, cultures and even species. Moreover, the color red has served a reproductive purpose in the animal kingdom by soliciting female attraction in species of crustaceans, birds, and primates.
The study also found that the color red induced perceptions of dominance and status — psychological justification for wearing red power ties. "Our findings establish, for the first time," Elliot wrote, "clear parallels in the way that human and nonhuman females respond to male red. This suggests that women's thoughts and feelings toward men are, at least in part, primitive."
This series of experiments mirrors a study our Tom Jacobs reported on in December 2008 in which University of Rochester researchers, including Elliot, found that men and males of a species perceived women in red as more attractive and sexually desirable than those clothed in other colors.
"The question 'What do women want?' with regard to sexual attraction and desire has puzzled men and preoccupied scholars for many years," Elliot reported. "Our research, coupled with work on the menstrual cycle effects ... and symmetry effects ... suggests that the answer may be less elusive, but perhaps more provocative, than anticipated."