Tom Ridge, director of homeland security, announced recently a color-coded method to define the risk of a terrorist attack. The Homeland Security Advisory System is designed to replace those informative "Something might happen but we don't know what where or when so just be generally afraid" warnings the government used to issue.
Ridge's office could have been blunt and simply used the words that correspond with each color: severe, high, elevated, guarded and low. Or it could have ranked the threats using a numerical system similar to the one the National Hurricane Center uses to rate hurricanes. But that would've been too easy. It would've made too much sense.
So Ridge settled on a rating system based on colors, which is probably better than hauling in some figure-skating judges.
Starting with the highest state of alert, the levels are red, orange, yellow, blue and green.
No fuchsia. No maize.
Just primary, distinctive, simple colors.
The government apparently is still refining how the public will be made aware of, say, a Condition Green. Will TV sets flash green? If so, the public would instantly know that the government had leaped to the task of "refining and exercising preplanned Protective Measures." Or under "Condition Yellow" it was "assessing further refinement of Protective Measures."
But will the new system work?
Will the public respond to a blue alert?
People who make their living analyzing colors for advertising, art and fashion say two of the colors are no-brainers _ red and yellow. Most people know that a red alert means something bad could happen very soon, and yellow is a color we usually associate with caution.
But what happens when the government tells us we're under an orange alert? That implies some sort of general vitamin C deficiency.
How about a blue or a green alert? Blue usually signifies the sea, the sky or maybe a military uniform. And green is associated with vegetation or money. Or go.
So on a blue alert, you dress up like a Marine and jump into the nearest ocean. And on a green alert, you stuff your pockets with money and broccoli, and take a Thelma and Louise road trip.
Terrorist alerts are serious business.
But will people take some of these colors seriously?
We fed the names of several colors into online encyclopedia Factmonster.com, and here's some of what we got:
Red signifies danger. And love. What's the difference, right? Red makes your heart beat faster and makes you breathe harder. Wearing red clothing gets you noticed. It also makes you appear heavier than you are. Red cars are popular targets for thieves, but it's considered good luck to tie a red bow on a new car. You can paint the town red, and have a red-letter day, but there's not much fun being on a red-eye flight.
Why do people waiting to appear on TV sit in a green room? Because green has a calming effect. It's the easiest color on the eye. You can be green with envy, have a green thumb, be green around the gills or a greenhorn, and hang out at the village green.
Blue is one of the most popular colors, and it causes a reaction that's the opposite of red. Blue causes the body to produce calming chemicals, so it's often used in bedrooms. But blue can also be cold and depressing. Especially if your food is blue . . . which is why it's also the least appetizing color.
Fashion experts recommend wearing blue to job interviews because it symbolizes loyalty. And people are more productive in rooms painted blue, which could explain why studies have shown that weightlifters are able to handle heavier weights if the gym is blue.
Blue also stands for love, which is why a bride carries or wears something blue on her wedding day. You can feel blue, be true blue, have blue blood, abide by blue laws, go into the wild blue yonder, and win a blue ribbon.
Yellow is the most difficult color for the eye to see, but it enhances concentration, which is why legal pads are yellow. It also has been shown to speed metabolism and make people cranky. A yellow ribbon is a sign of support for soldiers or someone missing, but someone with a "yellow streak" is considered a coward.
Yellow journalism refers to irresponsible reporting, and in a related item, it's also the color of crime scene tape.
Some people, mostly those deeply into New Age metaphysics, believe we all have auras emanating from our bodies that are based on our personality traits. How do we tell the auras apart? By color, of course. People who are physical and sexual are reds, while blues are loving, nurturing and supportive. Oranges are thrill-seekers and daredevils, and greens are powerful and intelligent. Yellows are fun-loving, free-spirited and energetic.
Alas, auras are visible only to certain people with special psychic powers. (You knew there was a catch.) Or you can buy your own set of Aura Goggles at your local New Age head shop. You know. It's next to Pep Boys.
Think there are more red cars than any other color? Not even close. Silver, white and black were far and away the most popular colors of cars and trucks sold in North America from 1998-2000, according to a DuPont survey. (Ready for this? Among sports cars, red was sixth.)
"There are just a million reasons why people pick a color," said Phil Schmidt, general sales manager at Suncoast Jeep/Chrysler/Plymouth in Seminole. "Some people pick white because of the Florida sun or because it's a neutral color and a lot of interiors look good with it. But other people want black because it's just a classic look.
"And there are people who walk in and just like the color."
So there you have it. Colors affect us dozens of ways, and they can be used to influence us. Even romance novels are color-coded. The steamiest stories, the Desires and Temptation series, have red book jackets. The milder ones, like the Silhouette and Harlequin series, are white.
So will the government's color scheme work?
Two experts on color: Christine Muratore, an artist and color consultant in Chico, Calif., and Lea Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, a color consulting firm near Rutherford, N.J., tried to answer that question.
Times: Let's start with the obvious. Red. Good choice?
Muratore: "Red excites the nervous system. When we look at the color red, we get stimulated. It's usually associated with and love and anger."
Eiseman: "You're right. Red is a no-brainer. And so is orange because it's so closely related to red. Yellow I understand, too, because it's a hot color. The three top colors (red, orange and yellow) were chosen from the top hottest temperature-wise. So they command the most attention. The top three do make sense."
Times: How about pink? It has red in it.
Muratore: "Initially, pink has a calming effect. But after half an hour, it nullifies itself and no longer has that tranquilizing effect. In one study, inmates in a prison were put in a cell with the color pink and they immediately calmed down. But in 30 minutes, it lost its effect.
"A pink alert . . . I kind of like that. Envision flamingos attacking you."
Times: No. Ah, so you both agree on yellow?
Muratore: "Well, yellow is associated with cheerfulness, but if you paint an infant's room yellow, they will cry more."
Times: Really? Why?
Muratore: "It just seems to affect infants that way. It's a color of high visibility, which means it agitates the optic nerve. That's why street signs are often yellow.
"And it's an informal color, but in a place where food is served, it actually encourages you to eat more. And eat fast. That's why you see yellow and orange in a lot of fast-food restaurants."
Eiseman: "And they're hot colors. They work."
Times: Okay, let's get to the blue and green alert.
Eiseman: "Green? Who picked that? This is not a person who relates to color other than, "Let's pick a color.' Blue and green are generally associated with a calmer feeling."
Muratore: "Blues and greens are the most peaceful and nurturing colors. They're associated with healing, caretaking, harmony. They're just too nice. I feel offended by that choice."
Times: There's no need to get upset . . .
Muratore: "And a blue alert is almost kind of twisted. It's such a peaceful color. If the government is banking on people's responses not being very serious, this is a good color."
Times: A spokesman for Tom Ridge, the director of homeland security, said he wasn't sure who picked out the colors. But I get a sense you think it was a man?
Muratore: "Probably. Women are more sensitive to color than men, and men are more likely to be color blind than women. Plus women tend to invest more in their emotions, and since colors stimulate the emotions, there's a stronger link there, too."
Eiseman: "I'd be really surprised if a woman was in on this."
Times: Okay, what colors would you use in place of blue and green?
Eiseman: "Anything vibrant. An electric blue or a lime green. They're bright, attention-getters. A lot of fire departments have switched to lime green fire engines because that color has a very high visibility. It gets people to stop and look."
Muratore: "Purple for guarded and brown for low. Purple has elements of red in it. And brown, well, it's the color associated with earth tones. And poop. Which is more appropriate in this case."