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During my campus journalism days, we had to do everything ourselves. This included creating a cover page for a student weekly with a news magazine sort of flair. Conflicts tended to arise when the photo editors, whose job description included helping with the newspaper's cover, often wanted to make the cover look aesthetically appealing. As the photo editors were most often photo or art students -- who were exceptionally talented in their own right and definitely understood images and art better than the rest of us journos -- they were more interested in letting artistic principles govern page 1.

The rest of us were concerned by other issues, including but not limited to what the major story was that week or what we thought students would find interesting. And others, including the editor-in-chief, general manager and advertising manager, had to be concerned with our pickup numbers. Being a free student weekly, we did not have subscriptions and our clout with potential advertisers depended entirely on how many papers left our racks each week. The cover, of course, is the first connection a potential reader makes with the paper and is often the deciding factor in whether or not he or she picks it up.

Week after week, this one photo editor -- a truly gifted photographer with an incomparable eye for detail -- pushed for stuff she maintained would "look nice." Including a lot of green. And week after week, our beloved general manager would remind her and us that green was one of the single worst colours for pickup. Green and yellow, she'd been told at numerous journalism conferences, are too passive and do not engage the reader. They do not pop well. They do not reproduce as well on paper as they do digitally.

This was our introduction to the concept of green being considered a no-no when it comes to journalistic cover production.

Interestingly enough, there is actually science behind this. Just as marketing executives use focus groups to determine which colours elicit which feelings in people, editors attempt to use colours to their advantage in order to make sure the publication can reach its full "pickup" potential.

In a 2006 article about the concept in Slate magazine1, a University of Mississippi journalism professor was quoted as saying that this was originally rumoured to be because the bright lights of grocery stores and convenience stores would make green look blue, thus making the colouring of the cover look wrong and decrease sales. Others speculated in the same article that the colour is one of the hardest to control and duplicate from the pre-press to press stages; what looks gorgeous on the screen might look like crap (literally) on the page.

The same article attributes the saying "Green is death on the newsstand" to Alexander Liberman, the former editorial director of Condé Naste. It also suggests that green has negative connotations in a variety of different cultures, including medieval Anglo-Saxon traditions2. On a somewhat more universal note, the colour is also associated with the negative concept of illness and the positive concept of environmentalism. But the most common belief among people I work with is that humans are programmed to react to certain colours the same way most of the time. The colour is commonly associated with the green "go" light on a stoplight, making it one of the least arresting colours in the spectrum. In other words, a passerby is probably not as likely to be stopped in his or her tracks by a newspaper or magazine cover that is primarily green. (Giving credence to this point is the fact that we were often told that red is a much better colour to use, and that yellow, the colour of vehicular caution, is not a hot choice either).

The January 2006 cover of Harper's Bazaar magazine featured actress Julianne Moore wearing a green dress. The cover text was also entirely made up of different shades of green. While that might not have struck the average peruser of fashion magazines as odd, it led to all kinds of "oh no they didn't" reaction in the industry. The cover won an American Society of Magazine Editors award that year. There is no data available for how well its "pickup" factor was, as one blogger notes3.

Despite Bazaar's award-winning break with tradition, most editors stay away from the colour. Check it out next time you're waiting in line to pay for your groceries.

(While passing a convenience store on my way to grab some dinner mere minutes ago, I realized that the biggest exception to this is obviously the garden magazine, which plays by a completely different set of rules and has a niche market.)

References:

1. http://www.slate.com/id/2153949/?nav=tap3
2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green#In_human_culture
3. http://www.ideasincirculation.com/2007/11/12/green-death/42/

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