Fresh From The Lab – Black and white imagery makes you think ‘big picture’ whereas colour imagery makes you detail-focused

21 April 2015

Marketers for while thought that colour images are better at advertising various products but is it really truth?

A recent study from The Ohio State Universityshowed that the ad and marketing professionals might have been misusing colour and under-using black and white images.

The researchers hypothesised that we associate black and white images with overall form of a product and the general bigger category as oppose to specific details or aesthetic features. So they devised a number of interesting experiments to test that assumption. Here are the results.

Experiment 1 attempted to show that on a subconscious level we really connect black and white images with bigger categories of product instead of their specific representations. So for example they listed categories like electronics and jewellery and their specific representations like digital camera and a ring together with images of these products in either black and white or colour. As predicted, participants were reacting faster when a general category word (electronics) was shown with a black and white picture of a product (digital camera) representing it indicated a closer implicit association between black and white and general category.

In the next experiment participants were asked to supposedly create a marketing tagline for a new camping radio. When they arrived in the lab they were presented with either black and white or colour picture of this radio as well as description of the product’s intended target market and the idea for the marketing campaign. They were then asked to create a tagline as well as rate certain features (e.g. weight and high precision tuner) of the product on a 9 point scale. As predicted participants presented with the black and white picture rated primary features (weight) of the radio as more important than the secondary features (high precision tuner).

Depending on the type of features that you want your consumers to focus on and depending on the situation you are going to present your product in or the situation in which consumers are going to use your product, you should either choose to go with black and white or colour imagery for your ads or marketing materials.

But is not only that black and white images can make us focus on big picture aspect of the product but they can also lead us to choose a product which is superior on these primary features. And this is what the next experiment shown. When presented with black and white images 73.91% of participants have chosen a product superior on primary features whereas only 50% of participants did so when presented with colour images of the products.

To sum up, this scientific research shows us that primary features of a product, the ones that define it and show its essential characteristics, grab consumer´s attention if presented in black and white imagery, while secondary features, being more superficial, are better communicated if advertised in colours.

This is an important discovery for marketers which can help them to improve the effectiveness of the ads and therefore their ROI. It is imperative therefore to, firstly, define what characteristics of a product a client wants to focus consumers’ attention on and then, based on that, choose if the communication will be more effective in B&W or in colour.

This study also shows that it might be beneficial to create different campaigns for various target markets. For example, if the ad will be presented on a billboard within the creative area of a town, it can prove more beneficial to focus on secondary, more aesthetic related, features of a product and create a colour ad. Whereas, if the ad will be placed in a business or tech heavy area of a city, then an ad focusing on primary (performance related) features presented in black and white could yield more favourable results on consumer decision making.


Article written by Kate Nightingale in collaboration with Ana Costa.

Images from We Love Ad and Deviant Art.