Color Theory and Subliminal Advertising

People talk a lot about color grading, but not very much about the color theory behind it. I recently saw this commercial for Bud Light, and I was struck by the conscious use of color theory in it.

At the beginning of the spot, the hero of the commercial is buying beer at sunset, and the imagery has a warm, “golden-hour” hue.


Almost everything in the frame is a warm color. The hero’s jacket is khaki, and his shirt is red. The only prominent blue element is the Bud Light carton.


Look at the traditional color wheel. Notice that blue and orange are roughly opposite each other. They are termed “complementary” colors, which means that they create a lot of visual contrast. Putting a blue carton in an orange world subtly draws the eye – and the viewer’s attention – to the product.


Now, the hero is at a party. His jacket and shirt now appear blue. Everything around him – including his skin – has a blue cast.


The first time we see beer in this world, it still looks blue, just as it did in the parking lot. This visually links the two scenes together.


Then, the hero is transported to a concert scene. Still, everything is blue.


Everything in nature strives for balance. This includes our minds. Show a person a ton of blue imagery, and they will start to build up a subconscious desire for the opposite: something orange colored.


Finally, the viewer is given a little hint of something orange.


Surprise! It’s a Bud Light. Then … Wait for it …


Money shot! An amazingly refreshing-looking Bud Light. The beer is a beautiful, amber-gold color, popping off a blue background, and fully satisfying the viewer’s subconscious desire for color balance.

A high-end commercial like this is constructed to operate on multiple levels. On the most superficial level, the message is: Bud Light will make you cool like this guy, and you’ll have a gorgeous girlfriend and amazing experiences too.

On a slightly deeper level, the commercial is training the viewer to associate the Bud Light with the pleasant feelings associated with the company of beautiful women and enjoyable music. Like Pavlov’s dog, which was trained to associate the sound of a bell with the presence of food to the point that it would involuntarily salivate at the sound of the bell, the viewer is being trained to associate the product with a set of positive emotions.

On an even more subtle level, the art direction and color grading subliminally reinforces the commercial’s objective. By “withholding” the color orange, the spot conditions viewers to associate Bud Light with the positive feeling they get when they finally see the orange-colored product.

How effective is this type of conditioning? It’s hard to say, but it’s fascinating to see the process at work.

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