The Colour That Saves Lives

By Greg Barton

There’s a new weapon in the war on tobacco-related deaths: the ‘ugliest colour in the world’ – Pantone 448C.

The Colour That Saves Lives

For decades now, governments and health agencies around the world have experimented with various ways to discourage tobacco smoking. In general, anti-smoking campaigns are targeted either at existing smokers, encouraging them to quit, or at young people, to prevent them falling prey to the habit in the first place.

In many countries, licensing bodies for the food and beverage industries have ensured that smokers have been gradually herded out of public eating and drinking areas and sent to stand out in the cold. Many countries have also placed a ban on cigarette advertising, as well as sponsorship by tobacco companies of sporting, entertainment and other large-scale events. The official position of both the EU and the World Health Organization is that the advertising of tobacco should not be permitted, period.

Since the early 2000s, to counteract a century of posters, films, TV shows, billboards and other visual messaging that directly or indirectly linked smoking with cool sophistication, modern advertising and marketing campaigns began to adopt an aggressive approach, using written health warnings and shocking imagery in commercials – and on cigarette packaging itself. What could be more visually arresting, for example, than graphic depictions of the brutal, damaging effects of smoking on a healthy set of lungs? Well, since a series of studies commissioned by the Australian government in 2012, there’s now a brand-new weapon in the war on cigarettes: Pantone 448C.

Known by its full title as ‘Pantone 448C opaque couché’, the greeny-brown colour was selected by more than 1000 smokers across seven studies as the most unappealing tone for a new range of cigarette packaging, in the hope that the nauseating swatch would negatively impact demand.

Equipped with the newly crowned ‘world’s ugliest colour’ and its visual association with what survey respondents described as ‘tar’, ‘dirt’ and ‘death’, the Australian government had Pantone 448C elements added to all cigarette packaging, as well as the aforementioned written warnings and graphic imagery. Overnight these ‘plain package’ cigarettes became compulsory throughout the Australian marketplace, and now France, Ireland and the UK are following suit.

The Pantone Colour Institute itself didn’t take the news lying down, hitting back with a statement in defence of the colour. “We consider all colours equally,” Pantone executive director Leatrice Eiseman told The Guardian last June. “There’s no such thing as the ugliest colour.”

Eiseman went on to point out that 448C’s “deep, rich, earth tones” were popular on shoes, couches and other household items. Smokers, on the other hand, appear to have voted with their wallets: the 11 per cent drop in tobacco consumption from 2012 to 2014 reported by the Australian Department of Health suggests that the off-putting Pantone 448C effect might just be working.

And What’s the world’s Prettiest Colour?

While no government has commissioned research into discovering objectively which is the world’s prettiest colour – and therefore a possible antidote to an overdose of Pantone 448C – a quick online search shows that blue is definitely winning the race. Both ranker.com and thetoptens.com have blue in the No. 1 spot worldwide, perhaps because it is appealing to both masculine and feminine sensibilities. The colour of the bright blue sky and the deep blue sea, of sparkling sapphires, lapis lazuli and crumpled Levis, in many cultures blue has come to be associated with harmony, infinity, calm and, yes, occasionally sadness.

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