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How sludgy olive green became the official colour of cigarettes

The drab shade was deemed the most repellent - but will consumers always see it that way?

Standardised packaging for tobacco in UK. Photograph: ASH/PA Wire

Is olive green classy and chic, or the world’s most disgusting colour?

The shade is the chosen default for the plain packaging of cigarettes in both Australia and now Britain. Ireland’s plain packaging bill also proposes the introduction of a “prescribed colour”, suggesting that olive green may be the one for us too.

So what has Pantone 448 C, to be precise, done to deserve this?

Its fate as the colour of cigarette packets originates in research commissioned by the Australian government from marketing agency GfK Bluemoon (now GfK Australia). GfK investigated which colour would be the most repellent to consumers ahead of the 2012 introduction of plain packaging in Australia.

Instead of doing what it was usually paid to do – choose an aspirational colour scheme that lures consumers – GfK was charged with coming up with something that would make them go “ughhh”.

In a series of studies involving more than 1,000 regular smokers, it tested colours such as lime green, white, beige, dark grey and mustard.

Dark brown ran a close second to olive green, presumably on account of its associations with excrement. But it was ruled out because it was perceived by some consumers to be “rich” and “upmarket”. A lighter shade of olive was too close to “gold” – or, as Mad Men’s Don Draper might say, “toasted”.

Olive green packaging was thought to have the least appeal, in part because it looked like it would contain the lowest quality, most harmful cigarettes.

Words such as “dirty” and the big one, “death”, were commonly linked with the shade, and nobody had much good to say about it.

It was all rather bad news for the Australian Olive Association, which eventually wrote to the government and asked it to stop using the term “olive green” to describe Pantone 448 C. So the packaging was often referred to thereafter as “drab dark brown”, which those who don’t suffer from a colour deficiency will see looks rather a lot like olive green.

The problem with colour in marketing is not just that colours come in and out of fashion: it’s that the symbolic meaning and perception of different colours shifts over time. The classic, oft-cited example of this is the past association made between girls and the colour blue and boys and the colour pink. As late as 1918, New York children’s clothing trade publication Earnshaws suggested that pink was “a more decided and stronger” colour, and therefore more suited to boys, while “delicate and dainty” blue was “prettier for the girl”.

Pink, when it’s the hot “shocking” pink popularised by Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli, is still a strong colour, though the gloss has come off a bit thanks to its recent use by technology companies intent on patronising female customers.

Brands’ choice of colours often has less to do with quasi-scientific research than whichever colours happen to be available. Purple is the classic “brand upstart” hue used by brands trying to compete with pre-existing “reds” and “blues”. Alas, there is something a bit 1999 about it, just like there is something a bit 1973 about mustard and a bit 1987 about beige.

Olive green must not have been in vogue the year the Australian government commissioned its research. But type the words “olive green” into a Twitter search bar and it will suggest completing the phrase with the words “is the new black”.

And anyone who thinks the bad press from plain packaging will somehow keep olive green off the catwalks of Paris, Milan and London is seriously misunderstanding and underestimating the fashion industry. “Disgusting” olive green can become “cool” olive green overnight.

Far more important than the choice of colour is the fact that all the tobacco brands will be obliged to have the same colour, which strips them of their ability to behave as a brand: Goodbye, Marlboro Red, John Player Blue, Silk Cut Purple. The number of court cases Big Tobacco has taken to prevent plain packaging indicates that this is no minor matter.

Still, the anti-charms of this sludgy, uniform colour tend to pale in the context of the foot gangrene, mouth cancer and weird eye torture that features in the vomitous new generation of graphic warnings. Under new European Union regulations, these monstrous deterrents must cover 65 per cent of the front and back of cigarette packets. How anyone can stand to look at them, I don’t know.

The thing with addiction, of course, is that it is a triumph of immediate need over the logic of self-preservation. But anything that helps prevent young people buying their first packet of fags must be tried, and sooner rather than later.

Anyway, olive green is not the new black. The new black is clearly canary yellow.

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