How the World's Ugliest Colour is Saving Lives - Pantone 448C
How the World's Ugliest Colour is Saving Lives - Pantone 448C

How the World's Ugliest Colour is Saving Lives - Pantone 448C

Pantone 448C has been named the ugliest in the world. What's the best use for a colour that is universally disliked, and how we can harness that for good?


Marketing firms and advertising agencies spend thousands of hours and millions of dollars every year trying to find the perfect colours and designs to make their products as appealing as possible. Think bright red to make it fun and energetic, or maybe green to make it natural and healthy. And of course, in the girl's toy aisle, pink, pink, pink, pink, pink.

But what if you're given a different brief, to try to sell as few products as possible and make your product as unappealing as you can? Well, this was the mission for one company, and this is the colour they came up with. Pantone 448C. It's been called the world's ugliest colour and is saving lives all around the world.

Colour psychology is the field of studying different colours and how they impact human behaviour. And we see colour in natural being used in all kinds of ways, including aposematism, which is where animals might be brightly coloured to warn potential predators that they're viscous or dangerous or toxic and not to attack them. And some things to do with colour is cultural. So in English, we have the phrase "green with envy." But the equivalent phrase in German is "yellow with envy."

So what's the story with Pantone 448C? Well, it goes back to 2012 when the Australian government was trying to introduce a series of policies to save lives due to smoking. At that time, about 19,000 Australians were dying every year unnecessarily due to health conditions associated with cigarettes. Over the previous years, laws have come into effect to fade out cigarette advertising from TV, from newspapers, and online.

[TV] Anyhow. Well, I got a year's of a new brand of cigarettes. Winfield. Have a good look at 'em.

[Announcer] Get with the forward-looking people. ♪ Look to Edinburgh ♪

[Announcer] Introducing new Virginia Slims, the slim cigarette for women only. Tailored for the feminine hand.

The health department wanted to get rid of the final place where cigarette ads were, on the packets themselves. And the policy was called Plain Packaging. And what that would do is replace the cigarette company's branding with large health warnings and a simple, plain descriptor of what the product was.

So that leads to a question. If you don't have any branding, what colour do you make the package? A market research firm, GfK, were given this task to come up with a colour that would be as undesirable as possible. Now, that's quite a mission. So they started with a series of colours and went to different sample audiences, and they started to hone in on a brownie-green mixture. And here's what they came up with, Pantone 448C.

Now when asked about what the connotations were, they were universally negative. And my favorite part is that it did not elicit any positive associations and had limited potential to do so. So while the government had its colour, there was more controversy to come.

Firstly, how would you describe this colour? I think if I was gonna have a go, I'd say it's a dark, murky brown. It's actually quite a hard colour to describe. The test audiences were told to describe it, and they did use words like murky. Also unclear, and greeny, and hazy. And there was one person in the group who must have been a bit of a teacher's pet who described it as the color of smokers' lungs. And the company that came up with it, they called this colour dark olive. Now, I don't actually think that's a bad name at all. And when it was released to the media, this is what they called it, saying that cigarette packages would soon be olive green in colour. But there was one group who didn't like this name. The Australian Olive Association. And there CEO sent a cease and desist letter to stop using the phrase "olive" in the colour name and instead should call it "drab green." Now, the health minister, who was fighting Big Tobacco, had better things to do with their time. So she said that she would extend an olive branch to the Association and give it a different name. So in the Australian law, it's actually named under the colour system, Pantone 448C.

So this was badged the world's ugliest colour. Now, the executive director of the Pantone Colour Institute did say, "We consider all colours equally. "There is no such thing as the ugliest colour." But they also have a Colour of the Year, so I'm not sure I believe them. But 448C, it does the job of making things look unappealing.

So from 2012, all cigarettes in Australia had to be wrapped in this visual awfulness. And Australia led the way in plain packaging, being followed by New Zealand, U.K., France, Thailand, and more. And a lot of them followed the Australian model and actually used the same colour.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Big Tobacco fought back, taking the Australian government to the High Court, to the World Trade Organisation, and every time have been beaten. This is legal to do.

So did it work in achieving its mission of reducing smoking rates? Well, a lot of researchers have done a lot of rigorous work on this. In fact, the "Journal of Tobacco Control," there's a special issue on the introduction of this policy. What they found is that smokers value the packets less. They value the quality of the cigarettes less. And importantly, Australian cigarette-smoking rates have dropped.

In fact, while it's still too high, Australia has one of the lowest smoking rates in the world. And there's a lesson, I think it's this. Not everything has to be beautiful. And in fact, being ugly can save lives. And when it comes to smoking, there's no silver bullet, or in this case, there's no drab-green bullet. But plain packaging works, ugly colours works, so here's to you, Pantone 448C.

I'm Julian O'Shea. Thanks for watching. I've got new weird, wonderful, and geeky videos every week, so press Subscribe, and see you then.