Why colour is vital for ads to pack an emotional punch

Colourist Toby Tomkins discusses the powerful role of colour to drive the emotional impact of ads, film and TV

To communicate what they need to say, all films, TV shows and adverts have to play with their viewers’ emotions. Sometimes that manipulation is subtle, sometimes it’s so deliberately overt that it’s become a recognisable trope, like the famous song-slowed-down ‘trailercore’ that John Lewis Christmas ads peddle.

And while some tools of emotional manipulation seem obvious, such as the use of music, or close-up shots of tearily wistful faces, there’s one very powerful one that we might not even realise is making us feel a certain way: colour. “As with music, colour gives us permission to feel, and should be considered at the start of the creative process,” as Orlando Wood writes in Look Out, his recent guide to effectiveness in advertising.

Toby Tomkins, founder and self-taught senior colourist at postproduction studio Cheat, is more aware than most about the impact that colour can have on helping enhance, create and evoke emotional responses; and has worked on ads for brands like Porsche, Jo Malone and McDonald’s, as well as film and TV projects for the likes of Netflix and Channel 4.

The role of the colourist is often seen as one shrouded in technical wizardry, but it’s not as complicated as it sounds. “We’re not artists — we’re not creators of what we’re working on — we’re designers,” says Tomkins. “We’re given a set of ingredients and instructions, and we work with what we have to create the best dish that we can serve.”