Razzmatazz: The Money of Colors

By Richard Morin
Sunday, August 14, 2005

Crayola crayons came in eight straightforward colors when they were introduced in 1903: black, blue, brown, green, violet, yellow, orange and red.Today, Crayola makes crayons in 120 colors, including "Inch Worm," "Jazzberry Jam," "Tropical Rain Forest," "Manatee," "Bittersweet" and "Razzmatazz." Manatee . . . Bittersweet . . . Razzmatazz ? What mysterious shades are those? And what's up with the other vague but vaguely evocative flavor and color names that are all the rage these days, like Ben and Jerry's "Fossil Fuel" or "Chubby Hubby" ice cream flavors, Benjamin Moore's "Sweet Daphne" and "Castleton Mist" paints, or that new nail polish color "Trailer Trash," manufactured by Hard Candy Cosmetics?

That's what Elizabeth G. Miller of Boston College and Barbara E. Kahn of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania wanted to find out when they embarked on a series of experiments to see whether people responded more positively to ambiguous color and flavor names or to more specific monikers. They reported their findings in the latest issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

Miller and Kahn discovered that there's method -- and perhaps even profit -- to this maddening name game. In one test, 100 students taking part in an unrelated study were told that after they had finished the research task they should select jelly beans from six containers as a reward for their participation. They were told that each container held a different flavor of jelly bean. Half the students saw containers labeled with ambiguous names ("white Ireland," "moody blue"), while the other half saw those same containers with more specific descriptive names ("marshmallow white," "blueberry blue"). As the researchers had hypothesized, students took nearly three times as many jelly beans on average from a container that bore a vague name as from one that carried a specific name. In another study involving 60 students, participants were told to pretend they were ordering sweaters from a catalogue. The sweaters in question came in various colors, and these shades were described either ambiguously or using common descriptive names. Again, the students clearly preferred the vague names when making their buying choices. A third test turned up similar results.

Why does ambiguity seem to sell? Miller and Kahn theorize that, without real information, consumers try to understand why the product has such a jazzy name and fill in the blanks with imagined desirable qualities.

Crayon Controversies

The name game is serious business in the crayon industry, where the names of colors have provoked occasional semantic storms.

The name of the color "Prussian Blue" was changed to "Midnight Blue" in 1958 in response to teachers' requests to change it because they felt students were no longer familiar with the history of the Baltic kingdom.

The Crayola company voluntarily changed the name of the color "Flesh" to "Peach" in 1962, "partially as a result of the U. S. Civil Rights Movement," the company reports on its Web site.

Similarly, Crayola changed the name of "Indian Red" to "Chestnut" in 1999 after teachers complained that "some children wrongly perceived the crayon color was intended to represent the skin color of Native Americans."

Tough Women

Is a woman tough enough to be president? Of course, say most Americans -- except when they are asked to evaluate a particular woman, according to a recent national survey by Westhill Partners and the National Journal's Hotline.

In a survey of 1,015 randomly selected adults in June, the pollsters asked a third whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement, "a woman is tough enough to be president." A third were asked the same question, except in place of "a woman," the pollsters read "Hillary Clinton." The final third were asked about Condoleezza Rice. In each instance, the generic woman clearly outperformed either Clinton or Rice. Nearly two in three -- 64 percent -- strongly agreed that a woman was tough enough, but only 32 percent expressed the same view of Clinton, while 21 percent shared that perception of Rice.

Even among members of their respective parties, a generic woman beat the flesh-and-blood type. "Hillary loses 24 points among Democrats and nearly 50 points among independents.

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