Carol Kaufman-Scarborough, Rutgers University, Camden


Many consumers throughout the United States have impaired or limited information processing capabilities as part of congenital or illness-related disabilities, yet their specific informational problems and needs have been infrequently addressed in formal study. In the present study, I examine the specific issue of color-blindness and its impacts upon shopping, packaging, and advertising. The survey responses of actual color-blind shoppers are content-analyzed for common problems, and recommendations are given for creating a more user-friendly shopping environment.

It is likely that color-blind consumers are unable to process some or all aspects of visual color information, potentially increasing their vulnerability in the marketplace. Basically, color-blind persons are at a disadvantage in exchange relationships where their performance is related to the abilities to see, to recognize, and to discriminate among colors. For them, color cues simply may not be processed and interpreted as intended.

Studies of consumer reaction to advertising, packaging, and other informational cues traditionally assume that the vision capabilities of consumers are within a relatively-standard range of color capabilities. As marketers, we translate that understanding of color in designing packages, developing advertisements, and in general, communicating meaning to consumers (Edell and Staelin 1983; Lee and Barnes 1990; Meyers-Levy and Peracchio 1995). In reality, the ability to perceive color is not uniform among all persons. Some persons who are color-blind are unable to see color at all; more common, however, are persons whose color vision is confusing, distorted, and difficult to match to the color-information provided in the marketplace.

The knowledge of color perception and processing builds its foundation on experimental evidence in psychology and vision studies, in which the colors, types, hues, and combinations are examined in assessing their impact on the meaning which is thought to be derived. However, ophthalmic evidence and consumer complaints tell us that a substantial number of consumers do not see colors in the ways in which our theories predict. It may be surprising to learn that in the United States alone, approximately 19 million persons possess some form of color-blindness. While many of these persons are not technically blind, there may be some colors which are inaccessible to them, appearing instead as a confusing blend of greys.

Depth interviews and surveys were completed by an initial sample of color-blind persons, using a snowballing sampling method. The informants were asked to describe their vision condition in their own words, to learn how they perceive the interrelationships among the colors that they can see, and those which they cannot see. They were also asked to discuss their perceived problems with advertising, in-store shopping, and packaging. They described their satisfaction with each of the three areas, and also provided insight into problems which they encounter. In addition, they were asked to use numerical rating scales on applications of color which are commonly adopted in the consumer products area.

The informants indicated that a common set of problems exist, which can significantly affect the color-blind person's abilities to shop capably and effectively. As consumers, they want to match items such as clothing and home decorations. They want to be able to find warning information on labels and to use products correctly. Basically, color-blind persons want to know what a color is, how to tell if something matches another item, and what information they need to be safe.

Color-blind shoppers experience predictable problems in the marketplace. Reds and greens pose the most consistent set of problems; dim lighting makes the problems even worse. Since color-blind persons process color information in a different way from color-sighted consumers, color-distortions can affect their abilities to choose products, to notice information in advertising and on packaging, and to operate effectively in store settings. Policymakers should be might consider interventions such as increased verbal color information on color-related products and increased contrast to highlight important information which affects consumer choice.

The informants had several suggestions which could potentially produce packaging which is more user-friendly for those who are color-blind, have age- or illness-related degenerative vision, or who have limited sight. Rather than printing warnings in commonly-used reds and greens, warnings which use universally-perceived cues are recommended. Warnings could adopt commonly-understood symbols or indicators, such as a circle with a slash, or print the entire message in capital letters. Such considerations are important in providing equal access to employee safety and protection.

Color-blind consumers have voiced their concerns with public settings which limit their accessibility to safe use and law-abiding behaviors. For instance, consumer activists launched a campaign heralding "color awareness" after a color-coded parking system was instituted in Palo Alto, California (Leibovich 1995). Since color was the only cue used to inform shoppers of parking instructions, color-blind consumers were clearly placed at a disadvantage. Other activities, such as driving, extend to concerns with safety. Since traffic lights are generally dependent upon color and position recognition, such signals sometimes vary between horizontal and vertical rows of lights, which can cause confusion. The color cue could be supplemented by a uniform system of stripes or shapes embedded in the lens of the signal Britten 1994).

References available upon request. Appears in the Proceedings of the 1998 Public Policy and Marketing Conference.

For further information contact:
Carol Kaufman-Scarborough
Rutgers University
School of Business
Camden, New Jersey 08102
Tel: (856) 225-6592
Fax: (856) 225-6231