Shocking Pink

It’s Pink Friday on Brian Juicer

This humble bottle of “sweet pea” body lotion may not look like much, but it – or one very like it – plays an important role in an intriguing psychological study of masculinity and risk. It’s worth reading the whole write-up, but a quick summary:

A group of men were asked to do a product test on Sweet Pea hand lotion, on the assumption that the lurid pink packaging would place their sense of masculinity under threat. Other men tested a power drill. In a gambling game afterwards – which was the real purpose of the study – the men whose masculinity had been ‘threatened’ took greater risks on average.

As the write-up says, the study is in line with plenty of others which suggest that testosterone increases risk-taking, and high-testosterone social environments – i.e. groups of blokes together – boost it even more. The linked piece makes the connection between this and the global financial crisis, but I also wonder if it could have implications closer to home.

We know that visceral and emotional states change how people shop, and that shopping itself changes these states. We know that happy people buy fewer items on promotion, for instance. We also know that framing the shopping experience – playing music or using scent in the store – can shift purchasing activity. Is there a way shops could push nervous men towards riskier behaviour? Pink baskets in hardware stores? The scent of hand lotion near the entrance to the supermarket beer aisle?

Threatened masculinity. (Psychologists not pictured).

For anyone who dislikes gender essentialism in marketing, studies like these might make slightly uncomfortable reading. Why is it pink that triggers such insecurity in men? In fact, the feminisation of the colour pink is one of the great triumphs – or crimes – of behavioural marketing. In the early 20th century, magazines could offer advice like this:

““The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”

The gender traits are familiar – the colours aren’t. Pink for girls, according to the Smithsonian piece I found that quote in, didn’t really take off until after World War II, as the core behaviour – dressing children so people could tell their gender at a glance – spread socially. The girliness of pink now seems an ineradicable cultural fact, but it’s only a few decades old.

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