top of page

The Timeless Tale of B&W

In this era of technicolour, I was born accustomed to the explosion of rainbows in the marketing realm. Colours have its way of speaking a subconscious language to my emotion and I have grown with the masses to absorb them as the obvious. Over time and space, colour trends have constantly been restyled except the black, the white and all its greys in between. In the colour game, for the black-and-white advertisements to remain consistently must indicate some confidence in its potency as a timeless visual poet (Lichtlé 2007).

What Makes It Powerful?

Since the ‘Roaring 20s’ fueled the outburst of modern advertising, this fast-paced industry has been filled with the ins and outs of many contenders (AdAge Encyclopedia 2003). Whichever field they are playing in, advertisers always want to be the first in line to catch up with the trends happening and that is also reflected in the way they use colours (Kapelke 2019). Yet despite the choices more infinite than the rainbow, black-and-white insists on making it come back every so often. The dynamic duo speaks differently for each brand, each advertisement and the colours also changes its message with the development of various cultural backgrounds (Greenleaf 2009). For various reasons, its simplistic beauty and versatility really prove the power as many highly successful campaigns over the past decades still called on the name B&W.

Needless to say, black-and-white advertisements have a lot to say throughout history.

The Form and The Function

Research has shown that black-and-white advertising puts emphasis on the basic product features whilst color advertising tends to point them towards unnecessary extras (Lee, Deng, Unnava & Fujita 2014). Hence, black-and-white advertisements have the ability to lead consumers to the defining function of the products instead of distracting them with unnecessary colored decorations. This comes in particularly helpful for brands where the appearance of their products are not highly celebrated.

This distinct power does not mean black-and-white advertisements cannot own up to its unique visual aesthetic. One particularly memorable advertisement fits into this case has to mention the series of Volkswagen campaigns.

Around the 60s when big luxury cars were in favour of Americans, Volkswagen with its humble Beetle had to stand out somehow (Fowler 2020). By gently mocking the appearance of its car, these advertisements had its way of underselling to oversell a car. Via the understatement both visually and verbally, it praised the very basic function of a car.

This aesthetic followed Volkswagen for decades and until these days, the trade magazine Ad Age, alongside several others, still ranked it the best ad of the 20th century (Shotton 2018).

Oh, It Takes Me Back!

When a brand wants to take its target audience for a trip down memory lane, B&W will come in as a vehicle of nostalgia (Greenleaf 2009). Principally, this highly successful campaign ‘Think Different’ from Apple in 1997.

These advertisements paired monochrome images of historical and visionaire figures in endeavour to convey a sense of yearning for the glories of the previous era (Greenleaf 2009) (Fowler 2020). This went in line with the crowd they were trying to reach, consumers who had purchased Apple computer equipment in the past (Teague 2007). This color scheme is seriously a magic ride which helps the audience visit the honoured past and brings them back into the future. Not only does this color scheme portray neutrality, it also depicts Apple as trustworthy and serious with their innovation (New Design Group n.d.).

Simply Glamorous

Black-and-white, as simple as it may seem, is also an acquired taste. Whilst all the alternative color explosions may be a better appeal, it can easily come across as tacky in the eyes of refined consumers. The color scheme is effectively affiliated with artistic sophistication and elegance (Greenleaf 2009). Advertisers can make use of this socially constructed notion to psychographically position a brand in a high-end category.

Take it from the brand that invented the social association between diamond and marriage, De Beers. Launched in 1947, this campaign by De Beers still keeps its title for the longest-running advertising campaigns of all time as of today. This brand relies on the very simple spotlight on its diamond in the black-and-white advertisement to sell expensive diamonds. Everything about this campaign is just timeless (Fowler 2020).

Around Here

Despite the availability of colours, some of the most well-off advertisers and brands still insist upon the B&W formula. So we know it is not the question of possibility but it is the conscious choice, knowing its effectiveness. Now that we know the power of communication in black-and-white advertising, which can potentially function more effectively than colours, advertisers need to take into careful consideration of each color appeal (Lee 2016).

Among my surroundings here in Vietnam, it is easy to see that color usage is in overwhelming favor of advertisers. There are a few factors coming into this situation. Firstly, compared to the Western world, we might not reach the point in time where we come to appreciate the aesthetic values of black-and-white visuals. As mentioned previously, monochrom is an acquired taste. We came fairly later with modernisation that the amazement with colors on the screen is still very visible. That leads to the fact that we have not developed a positive cultural meaning for black-and-white advertisements other than it is cheaper to produce.

But with the wave of cultural formation and nostalgic language of B&W, maybe at some point in the near future, we will learn from some audacious pioneer advertisers to adopt more monochrome designs to stand out in this colourful world.

To Be Continued.

‘Black and white are not colors, they’re shades’, I was told upon my very introduction to design (Presler, Heneveld & MacNair, n.d.). Nonetheless, with its subtle, yet consistent influence throughout decades of ever-changing colour hypes, black and white still surface and trending. This ultimate duo and its persistence seem to continue speaking even more rainbow of meanings and impacts than any other defined color palettes in the advertising world.

Reference List

AdAge Encyclopedia 2003, ‘HISTORY: 1920S’, AdAge, viewed 27 March 2020, <>.

Fowler, J 2020, ‘8 Highly Successful Advertising Campaigns’, Investopedia, February 7, viewed 27 March 2020, <>.

Greenleaf, E 2009, ‘Does Everything Look Worse in Black and White? The Role of Monochrome Images in Consumer Behavior’, in A Krishna (ed.), Sensory Marketing : Research on the Sensuality of Products, Routledge, pp. 241-258.

Kapelke, C 2019, ‘Marketing’s true colors: Brands and organizations can bolster their identity with a distinctive color palette’, WARC, viewed 27 March 2020, <>.

Lee, H, Deng, X, Unnava, R & Fujita, K 2014, ‘Monochrome Forests and Colorful Trees: The Effect of Black-and-White versus Color Imagery on Construal Level’, Journal of Consumer Research, December, vol. 41, no. 4, pp. 1015-1032.

Lichtlé, M 2007, ‘The effect of an advertisement’s colour on

emotions evoked by attitude towards the ad’, International Journal of Advertising, January, vol. 26, no. 1, pp. 37-62.

New Design Group n.d., ‘The Psychology of Colour in Advertising’, New Design Group, viewed 27 March 2020, <>.

Presler, J, Heneveld, T & MacNair, J n.d., ‘Understanding black and white as colors.’, Adobe, viewed 27 March 2020, <>.

Shotton, R 2018, ‘The pratfall effect: How flaws make advertising more appealing’, WARC, viewed 27 March 2020, <>.


Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
bottom of page