What's in a pill color? Consumers see messages in red, blue, green and white

Courtesy of Chaos, Creative Commons CC-BY SA 3.0

Don't judge a book by its cover, the old adage goes. But in the minds of pharma consumers, a pill's appearance speaks volumes. In fact, people draw conclusions about how well drugs work just by looking at them, a new study found.

Researchers surveyed people in the U.S., asking them to look at online photos and rate each "headache" pill on a variety of factors, including its expected bitterness, ease of swallowing, and effects on mental alertness and headache pain. They ran a similar experiment with 337 people in the U.S., China and Colombia, The Wall Street Journal reports.

White pills won out across the board, with participants in all three countries rating white tablets as most effective at treating headaches, the Food Quality and Preference study showed. Participants in the U.S.-only experiment also thought the light-blue pills would be least bitter, and red and light-red pills most mentally stimulating. They rated light green pills as the least effective for headaches.

All three groups thought diamond-shaped tablets would be hardest to swallow. But color also swayed Chinese consumers' judgments about swallowing. Chinese participants figured red and blue pills would be harder to take than all the other colors, the WSJ reports.

Researchers pointed out some potential pitfalls in their findings. Looking at pictures of pills on computers is different from taking them in real life, they told the WSJ. Age and previous experience with pills could affect people's expectations, the team added.

As Big Pharma knows well, appearance can make a big difference in selling drugs. Pfizer's ($PFE) little blue pill is known across the world as Viagra, and AstraZeneca ($AZN) counts on recognition of its "little purple pill," Nexium, to drive sales. GlaxoSmithKline's ($GSK) Parkinson's med Requip has a tilt-tab design that makes it easier to pick up, a selling point to patients. And pill design guidelines laid out by the FDA a few years ago have spurred innovation, prompting pharma companies to explore different colors, sizes and shapes for their products.

- read the WSJ story (sub. req.)

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