Sunday, July 31, 2005

The verbal obfuscation of the senses.

How much of what we think about a color has to do with what we call it?

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July 31, 2005
Color-Coding

By ROB WALKER
Nars Orgasm Blush

Choosing a product based on color is perfectly reasonable. The choice may be subjective, but it's also rational: the color you like best is the color you like best. So fans of, for example, a certain $25 shade of blush offered by a cosmetics company called Nars simply like that shade, and that's why it has attracted a strong rating and by far the most reviews among blush shoppers who post on MakeupAlley.com. The fact that the shade happens to be called Orgasm doesn't affect the consumer's reaction to the actual color, which would be the same no matter what it was called.

Actually, we all know that isn't quite true, and buyers of cosmetics probably know it better than most. Paula Begoun, who has written several consumer-oriented books about makeup and skin-care products, says that exotic or even baffling names have been part of the category at least since the 1950's. With a lot of makeup, there isn't really much to pay attention to besides color and texture, so a name that stands out means a product that stands out. ''Calling a color tan or mauve,'' she observes, ''is just boring and banal.'' This happens in many product categories (even paint colors have names like Garden Clogs and Squirrel's Tail), but the practice is particularly noteworthy in the outlandish, sensational or nonsensical quality of makeup names. Benefit Cosmetics, which made its name with its names, now has top sellers like Me, Myself & I eye shadow. Urban Decay Lip Gunk comes in a color called Gash. Nars also sells a blush called Deep Throat.

Two marketing professors -- Barbara Kahn of the Wharton School and Elizabeth Gelfland Miller of Boston College -- have conducted some experiments to try to figure out what sort of effect mysterious names of colors and flavors have on consumers. They divided such names into categories: typical color names might be either ''common,'' like dark green, or ''common descriptive,'' like pine green; atypical names could be either ''unexpected descriptive'' (Kermit green) or flat-out ''ambiguous'' (friendly green). Nars Orgasm blush is certainly an atypical name, although I will leave it to the reader to decide whether it falls under ''unexpected descriptive'' or simply ''ambiguous.''

Kahn and Miller found that unusual names were more popular, unless the person was distracted during the process of choosing -- that is, the unexpected won out when subjects were given the opportunity to think about it, as a shopper at a cosmetics counter generally does. Kahn suspected that certain words (like anything to do with sex) would always spark positive responses. But instead, the key seemed to be unexpectedness itself, which essentially engages the consumer in an attempt to solve the puzzle of the name. This rapid, essentially unconscious cognitive process, Kahn and Miller wrote recently in The Journal of Consumer Research, ''results in additional (positive) attributions about the product and thus, a more favorable response.'' This seems to affect not only whether a person chooses to buy something but also, oddly, how much she enjoys it.

Kahn and Miller cite two theories of mental processing that may be at work. In the case of ''unexpected descriptive'' names, we may be able to solve the puzzle to our satisfaction. With the more logic-defying names, we essentially conclude that there must be some reason for it, and given the circumstances (it's a product for sale in a market society), the reason must be positive. A spokeswoman for Nars declined to share the company's reasons for calling blush Orgasm or Deep Throat, perhaps sensing that the mystery is good for business.

Obviously there are limits to all of this, and Kahn notes that these are differences that occur only ''at the margins'' of consumer choice. No one is going to buy a color she thinks is repulsive, no matter how fascinating the name. But in a world of nearly infinite product choices, the margins matter. A good-enough name (or an ambiguous-enough one) is not only engaging to think about but also easy to remember and enjoyable to talk about. And even, perhaps, enjoyable to complain about. One MakeupAlley.com reviewer who wrote that Nars Orgasm is ''overrated'' could not help complaining that it is ''popular mostly because of its name.''

E-mail: consumed@nytimes.com.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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