When professor Stefano Puntoni set out to study the marketing power of pink, he and his fellow researchers expected to prove the rosy colour makes campaigns against women's diseases, such as breast and ovarian cancer, more effective. After all, pink is often used to signify femininity, and what rallies unity and support more than reminding women of the plight of their fellow females?
Instead, the researchers were surprised to find the opposite: Women are put off by the colour pink.
In an interview with Harvard Business Review, Prof. Puntoni, of the Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University, reveals that women who were shown advertisements dominated with the colour pink and prompted with gender cues were less likely to believe they would get breast cancer, and far less likely to donate to cancer research.
Rather than eliciting support for the cause, all those pink ribbons that are passed around to promote breast-cancer awareness may actually be counterproductive, Prof. Puntoni says.
He suggests that pink and the associated gender cues elicit a defensive response from women, and set off denial mechanisms. In other words, when linked with something as scary as cancer, pink repels women precisely because it reminds them of being women and the risks they may face.
"By adding all this pink, by asking women to think about gender, you're triggering that," he told Harvard Business Review. "You're raising the idea that this is a female thing. It's pink; it's for you. You could die. The cues themselves aren't threatening – it's just a colour! But it connects who you are to the threats."
The researchers found that women were more receptive to a gender-neutral peach-coloured ad than a pink ad. On the other hand, men who were shown the same pink and peach advertisements found the pink one was easier to read.
Prof. Puntoni says he can't explain why.
"We don't know too much beyond this. I will say that seeing more men wearing pink as part of breast-cancer awareness may start to break down the colour's effect as a gender cue. Or maybe it has an empowering effect on men, who would donate more because of it."
He notes that the notion of pink being a feminine colour is a relatively new concept. Before the 20th century, pink was considered a male colour, he says. "It may change again," he suggests.
Would you be more inclined to support breast-cancer campaigns if they used a "gender-neutral" colour?