Using Colour in Advertising - Communicating With Colour

Colour as Communication

Colour is one of the most fundamental forms of communication in nature. It is a bit like an unspoken language. Plants, insects, fish and animals use colour in various ways to aid their survival. Sometimes, they may mimic the colour around them so they can hide more easily. Both predator and prey use this technique – tigers, zebras, cuttlefish, etc. Alternatively, colour may be used to stand out deliberately such as fruits or flowers. We also use the language of colour and can wield it to achieve our aims.

Before going any further, here’s a quick exercise for you to try: Look at each of the panels of colour below and try to think what you might associate with those colours. You can then flip them over and see some suggestions on the back.


Danger, Passion, Ripe, Blood, Stop, Heat, Excitement


Water, Cold, Sadness, Calm, Conservative, Traditional


Nature, Life, Sickness, New, Fresh, Environmentally Friendly, Go, All clear

You may have come up with some different ideas and might not agree with all of the suggestions. However, we would normally expect at least some overlap. Communicating with colour seems to cross over cultures more easily than verbal communication. Even if you couldn’t read what was on a sign, chances are that if it were red then it would be a warning of some kind. So, using the visual language of colour can be a powerful way to get a message across to an even bigger audience. This is why the colours we choose for our products and brands and how we go about using colour in advertising are so important.

Construction Photography - Sample - student sawing timber

High visibility safety clothing tends to be a bright shade of orange, red or yellow. These colours catch our attention more easily. So, if we want something to be noticed, using a bright, warm colour may be a good idea. Similarly, we must take care as a bright red object in an image is likely to draw the eye to it even if it is not the intended subject. 

Colour Harmony

For some advertising images, although we want the product to be obvious, we may want something that feels more balanced in which the product is not overbearing. Colour harmony is one way of doing this. It simply means using very similar colours or colours that sit comfortably together to create a sense of harmony and ease. The two images that follow make use of colour harmony in slightly different ways.

Hugo Boss Infinite with sunset seascape background
Argan Oil Shampoo image with billowing cloud special effect

Having harmonious colours does not mean that we do away with all drama. But it does help to tie a scene together and can make things feel more “natural” and that they belong. The following two contrasting images want the subject to look like it belongs there. One is a fashion shoot on the beach with summer clothing. The other is a pint of beer in a pub with a warm glow of what appears to be a fire in the background. Both are designed to give the feeling that the product fits well into the scene before you. The clothing is suitable for wearing on the beach and the beer is good for a relaxing evening, perhaps by the fireside.

Fashion Photography - Sample-5
Glowing pint of beer in Beeston Brewery Glass shot at The Norfolk Lurcher

Complementary Colours

One of the most well known aspects of colour theory is complementary colours. There are three primary colours: Red, Yellow and Blue. Each of those has a complementary colour – a colour that goes well with it. This is found by combining the other two colours. So, Red’s complementary colour is a combination of Yellow and Blue = Green. See the chart below for all of the complementary colours. Each is opposite the primary colour it goes with.

Colour Wheel Reference Chart

So, how might we apply this when using colour in advertising? In the image below, the product is approximately an orange colour. Its complementary colour is blue, so that is what has been used for the background.

Chanel No 5 Perfume Bottle with blue silk CGI
Booja-Booja new year advert of planet earth on slate

This advertising image created for Booja-Booja uses a similar colour scheme. The slate background was originally quite grey. I added some blue to it and warmed up the cocoa a touch to give a stronger feel for the complimentary colours. The warmth of one enhances the coolness of the other and vice versa. Using colour in advertising like this is all about enhancing the overall message. By using the blue, the chocolate looks even warmer and richer. It doesn’t just blend into the background as it might if we’d used colour harmony. The brown also holds connotations of the earth and nature, which supports the vegan aspect of the brand.

Communicating with Colour - Wealth

Can colours really make a difference between high and low end sales? There aren’t likely to be many cultures that don’t prize gold to some extent. It is a colour we have learned from ancient societies to associate with wealth. We also commonly find (at least in UK culture) that very dark blue or even black can carry connotations of professionalism, luxury and desirability. Adverts for high end cars, for example, make use of dark backgrounds. Simple compositions with strong contrasts between light and dark are a common device for selling high end products such as perfume and watches. Using colour in advertising is about creating these kinds of connections in people’s minds.

Black Shiraz wine bottle
Jewellery Photography Sample Image - Close up of watch on tile background
Molton Brown Hand Cream advertising image with splash

Notice the use of complementary colours in this perfume image too.

Communicating with Colour - Evoking Emotional Responses

Advertising images are seeking where possible to trigger an emotional response in the viewer. At the beginning we mentioned briefly the associations that colours can carry for us. To increase the effectiveness of our advertising photography, we can match up the moods that a colour suggests with our desired outcome in the viewer. For example, take a look a the two pictures below.

Cosmetics Advertising Photography - Rimmel Red Lipstick Splash
Adidas Ice Dive Deodorant Spray- creative advertising photography

A viewer might see the lipstick image and think about standing out, being passionate and in a state of excitement. They may even connect it with the expression “making a splash” (being noticed, catching the eye, etc.). So, if you are in the kind of mood where you want to be seen then you might connect with this.

Similarly, the deodorant is linked to remaining cool and not sweating. The name itself (“Ice Dive”) suggests that the image should be styled to emphasise the cool theme. So, blue was a natural choice. If the viewer wants something that helps them to feel like they can keep cool or keep their cool for long periods of time then they may connect with the advert.

Colour in Advertising - A Key Factor

Communicating with colour is an important part of putting together an advertising image. Yes, at times we may risk overthinking things or just want to do something that seems to look and feel right. But, as with any language, if we want to use it more proficiently and make ourselves understood more easily then it pays to work on our communication skills. Part of my own ongoing self-development involves studying how colour and composition are part of our visual language. I believe that if we want to be effective then we need to understand and communicate using the symbols and terms familiar to our target audience(s).

Adidas Shower Gel with CGI Bubbles
Superhero stylised portrait of Kalene with Norfolk Chambers of Commerce
Booja-Booja Christmas Advert - cocoa powder tree
CGI Photography of an Ibanez electric guitar
Chanel No 5 Perfume with background of blocks falling CGI

You might also like to read my article about communicating using images, in which I look more at images as a form of communication. There is also my article on the power of images to have an impact on us.

© Joe Lenton, July 2021

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