It’s rare that a minority is overrepresented on television but apparently redheads are a hot commodity. Media analysis firm Upstream Analysis reported to the Huffington Post last week that 30 percent of primetime TV ads include a redhead, even though the incidence of natural red hair in the United States population is somewhere between two and six percent. Upstream Analysis analyzed over 1,700 ads on the major networks over a two-month period and found that redheads were prominently featured in advertisements for every product from cars and clothes to burgers.
Redheads, it seems, have gone viral.
Why are ad agencies so ginger-obsessed? Most of the media speculation so far has centered on the color red’s association with sexual attraction. Psychologists have found that men subconsciously associate red with sexual availability and, based on the fact that women in heterosexual partnerships tend to perceive a woman in a red dress as a sexual threat, women seem to have internalized this link as well. But Joe Pinsker at The Atlantic is unconvinced, citing studies that show that neither men nor women prefer redheads at particularly high percentages, despite the color’s well-established connection to the erotic.
Upstream Analysis’ next best theory is that the novelty of red hair is intrinsically motivating based on research that shows that humans instantly try to absorb new information when they see something rare or unique. By that logic, Ariel from The Little Mermaid would be the most coveted celebrity spokesperson of all-time and, in fact, mythical creatures like mermaids and unicorns are often deployed to make commercials memorable.
But Upstream Analysis all too quickly glosses over the fact that the color red has been found to “stimulate the appetite” as well. Have you ever noticed that almost every single fast food logo has the color red in it? Some colors are more appetizing than others—which is probably why blue M&M’s were added last—and red definitely takes the cake in terms of hunger-inducing colors.
What if redheads don’t just turn male viewers on? What if they don’t just intrigue us like beautiful crimson comets streaking across the monochromatic television sky? What if they just make us hungry?
Does anyone else recall being barraged on Hulu two years ago with Wendy’s commercials featuring a redheaded spokeswoman who seduces another redheaded woman into ordering some sides? And these days, I can hardly get through an episode of MasterChef without seeing her scarlet hair billowing in a strawberry field as she tells an unsuspecting tech support guy about Wendy’s new salads.
From a Dairy Queen customer who becomes an opera singer over a waffle cone Blizzard to a girl who’s having the time of her life playing Kinect with two bizarre humanoid burger men, redheaded women seem to be everywhere food is being sold on television. (And yes, they have even cornered the market on cat food.) The marketing agencies behind these commercials are doubtless banking on the sex appeal of ginger ladies—Upstream Analysis found that redheaded women were “twice as likely to appear in ads as redheaded men”—but, given the psychological association between the color red and hunger, their flaming tresses may just be doing double duty as an aphrodisiac and an appetite stimulant in food commercials.
Consider, too, as one BuzzFeed commentator noticed last year, that redheads are often used to advertise foods that are primarily marketed to women like yogurt, candy, light snacks, and diet food. Because marketing agencies tend to treat women as if they are completely sexless creatures—with the exception, perhaps, of the “man in every room” air freshener commercial that still haunts me like a waking dream—there should be no practical reason for this overabundance of redheads in Activia commercials, especially if red is supposed to be effective because of its sexual associations for men. Marketers aren’t exactly looking to titillate young men with Lean Cuisine, after all.
Even advertisements that aren’t for restaurants seem to be capitalizing on the red-hunger connection. One of the credit card commercials for Citi that Upstream Analysis cites in their report also features a vermillion vixen (wearing a fantastic cheetah print sweater, by the way) eating lunch with a friend. The redhead that Upstream Analysis noticed in that Verizon FiOS commercial? She’s dancing in a kitchen while apparently cooking the world’s most elaborate salad. Even the redhead in the ever-dreaded Sprint Framily commercial is holding a coffee mug and eating brunch. If redheads are supposed to be sexually voracious in the male imagination, they’re apparently just plain voracious on television.
But maybe this redhead-red-hunger connection isn’t so bad. The “sex sells” adage has been cited far too often by marketers who want to pass off softcore porn as television advertisements. If I ever have to sit through another GoDaddy commercial, I will literally remove my own eyeballs Minority Report-style and mail them to their CEO. And I don’t know why you have to give a man a boner in order to get him to eat Doritos, but I’m not sure I want to find out.
As a woman who consumes both food and television, often at the same time, I’d much rather be subtly manipulated by the color red’s association with food than by its association with male heterosexuality. While marketers struggle to figure out what turns women on, food sells—sometimes just as well as sex does. After all, nearly three-quarters of Food Network viewers are women. The potential redhead-hunger connection, then, could be a smart but subtle bid for female television viewers. Red, after all, seems to make straight men go wild—but it apparently makes everyone hungry.
So shine on, you brilliant redheads. I’m going to go get a cheeseburger.
Samantha Allen writes about gender, sexuality, and technology. Her opinion columns appear regularly at the Daily Dot and her work has also appeared on The Daily Beast, Jacobin, The Advocate, Paste, Polygon, and Kotaku. You can find her on Twitter at @CousinDangereux or on the web at www.samanthaleighallen.com.
Photo via Wendy’s/YouTube