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What is the Significance of the Color of a Pill

Does color really make a difference?  Imagine a world without the little blue pill or the purple pill.  For pharmaceuticals, colors and shapes not only signify the type of medication to a consumer, they can also represent the source of each medication.1  Until the middle of the 1900s all prescribed medications that were in pill form were uniformly white and round. Over-the-counter drugs were also white or pastel in color, with Pepto-Bismol and its bright pink hue being the only exception to this general rule. In the 1960s, colors were introduced for the first time. By 1975, with the introduction of soft gel capsules, red, yellow, and lime green colors were being seen in the medication aisles. Today there are thousands of different tint combinations available to the pharmaceutical market.  But does it really matter how they color your capsules, tablets, or pills? The answer seems to be a resounding yes and for many reasons.

More people die from adverse drug events each year than from highway accidents, breast cancer, or complications from AIDS. Adverse drug events (ADE) are defined as any medication error with significant potential to harm a patient.2 Achieving patient safety is a foremost goal among healthcare leaders around the world. A key area of scrutiny is the risk associated with medication errors. As hospitals strive to improve care and perform at high-quality standards, medication safety must be a primary focus. 3 For this reason, healthcare workers appreciate distinctly colored, shaped, and labeled medicines. For patients, many of which are elderly, these visual cues are the last defense against swallowing the wrong pills by mistake. The typical Medicare patient may take 18–24 different prescription drugs each year. Familiar colors and shapes can help seniors remember proper dosing. Emergency healthcare workers also appreciate the recognizable coloring and markings of medications, especially when patients are alone and unable to communicate. Time is often a critical factor and ready drug identification can save precious moments.

Researchers have discovered that humans respond differently to different colors and this psychology has its place even in the world of pharmaceuticals. From a medical perspective, anything that will positively reinforce taking necessary medications is crucially important in recovery. Since physical health and emotional health are so closely linked, the patient who believes a particularly pleasant-looking pill will achieve the results that it conjures up in his/her mind is much more apt to take the medication faithfully and receive greater benefits from it. This placebo effect has been shown to positively enhance speed and totality of recovery.

When the color of the pill mentally matches the intended results greater benefits are enjoyed. For example, a mild blue pill like Celebrex is calming—the perfect way to handle the frustration of pain. Blue is also masculine and has successfully worked in the marketing of Viagra, a male sexual enhancement product. Elderly people have a decided preference for red and the color reminds them to take their heart medication. Children consider pink to be a sweet color and medications for little ones are often dressed in this color. Purple speaks of royalty, command and dignity. What better way to take control over acid reflux than with Nexium’s purple pill?

Because drug marketers know that colors, taste, sounds and smells can have a synaesthetic effect, they have been successful to some degree in trade-marking their unique brands. This becomes especially important as a brand’s generic immunity becomes close to expiration. While it is not unusual for generic brands to mimic the original, establishing a strong brand can hold customers loyalty past the patent date.

Since the FDA has allowed direct-to-customer marketing, drug companies have competed fiercely for the most recognizable product, and color identification is one of the critical branding approaches because it addresses the visual features, distinguishing products from the competition; it appeals to a core value connection of product and anticipated result; and it can stir a positive emotional response. While most attention is given to OTC drugs, pharmaceutical companies spend enormous amounts of money on the most attractive and appealing dressing for each new product brought to the market. This commitment is based on hard data that says color, even of a pill, really does make a difference. 4

1 Signe H. Naeve, “Heart Pills are Red, Viagra is blue…When Does Pill Color Become Functional? An Analysis of Utilitarian and Aesthetic Functionality and their Unintended Side Effects in the Pharmaceutical Industry”, April, 2009

2 Vredenburgh & Associates, Inc., “Drug Labeling and its Impact on Patient Safety”, IOS, Volume 33, Number 2, August 27, 2009.

3 Amagla, Inc., “Closing the Loop in Medication Management”, April 2009

4 Color Combos, Inc., “The Color of that Little Pill Does Make a Difference”, February 2011