Eric Karjaluoto

How McDonald’s Tricks You With Color

I think about food an awful lot. Over the years I’ve struggled to reduce my weight, and as I get older the necessity to do so seems greater. Although I’ve always disliked my bulging belly, my vanity tends to lose out to my (much stronger) appetite. That said, the very plausible risk of a heart attack, or other major ailment, isn’t so easy to dismiss. As such, I’ve changed a number of my ingrained habits.

So far, the changes have been successful. I sleep more, have reduced stress, exercise frequently, and have modified my diet. The first three points were straightforward, but the fourth has been a more consuming process. As a result, I’ve done some investigation, reading, and learning on the topic.

Fact is, I’ve always eaten quite well (my diet is principally vegetarian). I just consume a little too much. However, as I learn more about food, I’m becoming more aware of how twisted our understanding of it is.

Our associations with food are almost entirely perverted. The food industry is monopolized by a small number of large corporations that have done what corporations are supposed to: maximize shareholder value. Sadly, the way they’ve achieved their successes is by hacking our collective perception of what food is, leaving us to accept “food products” in place of actual food.

There are many examples of how food has been compromised: Optimizing factory farming to the point of becoming a surreal freak-show; Inventing “enemies” that were never there; Co-opting the organic food movement. There’s little in your grocery store you shouldn’t be suspicious of.

What’s most interesting to me in all of this learning, is seeing how these groups use design to help achieve their needs. And although McDonald’s has been kicked plenty, I find difficulty in not using it to argue my point. Just as Apple serves as an undeniable example of brilliant design; McDonald’s is a perfect example of how to engineer misinformation.

Today, I want to hone in on just one of the tools McDonald’s uses in its assault on your nutritional belief system: color. Yes, that which so many deride as frivolous can be a highly effective weapon when placed in the wrong hands.

We believe what we see—more so than most care to admit. This prejudice to visual information isn’t elective; we are hard wired to use what our eyes take in, to help us determine how to act. Is the animal in front of me a threat? Should I seek shelter from a storm that’s moving in? Is the object in my hand safe to eat? These questions, and many others, are first informed by what we see.

Nature knows this, and uses color to code much of what surrounds us, helping us identify safe/nutritious bounty. (Not always the case, but mostly.) For example, nature uses color to tell us when an apple is ripe, and when a banana has gone bad. The psychology of color is a vast and complicated topic; however, when we consider our instinctual leanings, we recognize how alluring bright, rich color is. Our associations with color are attached to subconscious beliefs about flavor, nutritional density, and even whether food is fit for consumption: which is why we put chemicals in our tomato juice to keep it red.

This same information is echoed by many nutritional experts when they encourage healthy diets. They allude to color, recommending that we consume a “rainbow” of foods, using color as a shortcut to identify nutritionally-dense food sources. There are the yellows, oranges, pinks, and bright greens of citrus fruits; the deep reds, blues, and purples of berries; and, those dark greens found in kale and chard, and the like. Color serves as one of nature’s signals for what you should be eating. Increase the number of colorful plants you eat versus processed foods, and you’ll immediately feel better for having done so. (I certainly do.)

McDonald’s has perfected the science of triggering our base appetites. The company imprints positive associations with their brand during our formative years, and utilizes manufactured tastes/flavors that often seem (at least initially) as though they’re better than the real thing. But the way McDonald’s tantalizes us visually is with color. This act is performed at a sensory level that affects us deeply.

So, join me on a brief field trip. Today, at lunch, make your way to a McDonald’s. You might first find yourself drawn in by those welcoming yellow arches, which act as a kind of beacon. Equal recognizable will be that arresting red, which (depending on the vintage of the location) adorns their roofs, supplemental architectural elements, and the new monolith-like logo blocks that seem to be a fixture outside their newer locations.

Inside, you’ll find a space made cozy through grounded cremes, greys, and chocolate tones—sparked with rich hits of maroon, crimson, pumpkin, and avocado. (I should note that I’m referring to the redesigned McDonald’s interiors, which have replaced the more sickly interiors of McDonalds’ past.) On the display menu, and posters, you’ll see deep red and umber gradient backgrounds, which serve as a backdrop for photographs of their food products. As for the food? So very golden!

This same system is found in the packaging that every item at McDonald’s comes wrapped in. Think about that for a moment: most restaurants serve food on a plate. However, at McDonald’s, the food is effectively hidden from sight. Your Big Mac comes in a box adorned with a (not particularly accurate) photograph of a burger, alongside some photos of plants: lettuce, onion, tomato. Your delicious fries come in a bright red box with bits of yellow; and that skinny, tall soda is a white canvas, peppered with hits of color—often clean, refreshing blue tones. There’s more: the other sandwiches, wraps, pies, nuggets, coffee, are never short of color. Even your tray is covered by a colourful printed promotion of some sort. (And don’t get me started on the kids’ Happy Meals and PlayPlace.)

McDonald’s doesn’t employ color accidentally. For all the criticism the organization faces, few would dispute that its people are masters of optimization. Over the past 75 years, McDonald’s has refined its operational mechanics, giving the company a unique and remarkable super-power: the ability to produce an illusion that leads even the most informed to suspend what both our brains and our bodies already know.

For example, I’m well aware of the adverse effects that McDonald’s food products have on my health and the great societal costs of such eating. Moreover, I know that only moments after ingesting one of their “meals,” my body reacts dramatically, leaving me sluggish, dreary, and sickly bloated. That said, just thinking about those fries is enough to make my mouth water—no matter how my body and brain might otherwise protest.

Color alone doesn’t achieve this feat, but it is a powerful tool. Although my body may crave sugar, fat, and salt, none of these are particularly appealing in their natural state. Herein lies the brilliance of McDonald’s formula: their ingredients satiate these cravings, while they use color to appeal to our visual sensibilities. Seen in nature, these same colors indicate a wide variety of tastes, nutrients, and health benefits. McDonald’s hijacks these perceptions and uses them against us.

“But we know better,” you say. “Everyone knows McDonald’s isn’t healthy!” Sure, but knowledge and impulse are two very different drivers—and what we desire typically wins out over what we know.

We’ve reached the conclusion of our little field trip, and you can now stop looking so carefully at what surrounds you. It’s time to eat—and I certainly don’t want to stand in your way. In fact, I’ll help get you started!

First, let’s dispose of some of this junk. I’ll put your tray aside and you can instead use this nice white plate I brought for you. Just remove the burger and fries from their packages and put them here—and you’re all set. Oh, wait, one more thing: here’s a glass for your Coke. Who wants to drink from a tacky paper cup when you can have a nice, cool frosted glass, right?

But before I go, could you do me a small favor? Look again at what’s in front of you. Notice what you’re left with once those wrappers and adornment are cast aside? Yup—mostly just washed-out beige. Mmmm. Yummy.

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