Crayola ~ Marketing or Madness?


In my previous post, Free the Oxford English 47,156,  I spoke of the beauty of language and the power inherent in a vibrant and wide-ranging vocabularly.  Characterizing language as a palette used by writers to represent reality as surely as Cezanne, Klee or O’Keefe transformed their canvases with color, I suggested a direct relationship between visual arts and the envisioning which every reader enjoys as the pages and paragraphs pass.    Jeanie of The Marmalade Gypsy responded by saying,  “I find  (language as a palette) a beautiful and fascinating concept. There are so many variations of color, and when they blend together, even more. Why say “blue” when azure or teal or slate might tell the story better?  

In her own spell-bound rendering of a late winter sunset, View from the Third-Storey Window says,   “The magic, of course, is color and at least from this window it is brief, intense, and unusual. It is sky-blue-pink. Take those tints right out of the old Crayola box–the one with 64 upright crayons and the sharpener on the outside– “sky blue” and “pink.” Let them swirl and blend, dodging the occasional cloud, yet remain distinct. Try not to let them morph into purple. No hint of gold or yellow remains; the sun is already gone. Sky-blue-pink. Say it as a single word; see it as a single hue.”

All  this talk about color reminds me of a discovery I made last year during the  50th anniversary of Crayola’s famous 64-count box.  Introduced in 1958, the limited edition “50th Birthday Box” contained eight new colors, with names that were created after input from nearly 20,000 youngsters. In a news release announcing the 2008 “Kids Choice Colors” Crayola provided an interpretation of their meaning through their company representatives.  Here’s that interpretation, as reported in

“Just like professional color experts who predict the year’s hot hues, kids across the country had the chance to voice their own opinion and pick the colors they felt were “in” for 2008. They were invited to participate in an online survey at where they were asked about the things they value and are most interested in. Next,they said what those things would look like as a color and then zoomed in on the shade within each color family (red, blue, green, yellow, brown, pink, orange and purple) that they felt was the coolest. The result? A collection of eight colors was created that draw on everything from kids wanting to play their part in protecting the planet to believing that they can become famous just like the everyday people who achieve stardom on reality shows.”

The 2008 “Kids Choice Colors” include:

“super happy” — Kids don’t want to worry, they just want to be happy — “super happy” — as their color says and they wish the same for others, too.

“fun in the sun” — Riding bikes, playing soccer, skateboarding, and gymnastics – kids said this color means exercise and keeping fit are important … and fun!

“giving tree” — It’s a colorful truth that kids are thinking green, too, and want to play a part in protecting the Earth.

“bear hug” — A hue of harmony as kids want their homes to feel warm and loving just like a great big bear hug.

“awesome” — Means kids think school is cool and getting good grades feels awesome.

“happy ever after” — Kids want to make a difference and create Cinderella moments for others, so everyone’s story has a happy ending.

“famous” — American Idol and shows like it inspired this hue, as kids believe they can become celebrities just like everyday people who become stars.

“best friends” — This shade of purple reveals who kids’ real BFFs are – their parents – and spending time with them is what they enjoy most.

Or so say the marketing gurus at the Crayola Corporation.


All of this is extraordinarily interesting.  I have a question or two about Crayola’s sampling process, and some curiosity about precisely who wrote those descriptions of what’s important to the children, but I’m mostly bemused by the names themselves. Can you find the yellow crayon in the list? (Clue: it’s not “Fun in the Sun”). Which is pink?  What about “Famous”?  (It sounds as if it ought to be green – as in dollars – but it isn’t.)  Unless you’re looking directly at the crayola with the label still on it, or read the press release, you wouldn’t have a clue that “Best Friends” is a shade of purple. Think about it. You’re coloring with a grandchild or nephew or niece and someone says, “Hand me that Super Happy”.  What would you do?

When common sense still was abroad in the land,  this wasn’t a problem. Look at this list of special colors from the 1949-1957 “big box” of 48 Crayolas: Apricot. Bittersweet. Burnt Sienna. Cornflower. Maize. Thistle. Salmon. Lemon Yellow. Mahogany. Sea Green. Melon… 

Now look again at this year’s list of “Kids’-Choice Colors”:  Super Happy. Fun in the Sun. Giving Tree. Bear Hug. Awesome. Happy Ever After. Famous. Best Friends…

I don’t know whether to be appalled, agitated or amused. A combination of all three probably is appropriate. Looking at the two color lists side-by-side, a few thoughts come to mind.

* We’re losing our connection to the natural world more rapidly than I realized.  When I was given my first big box of crayolas, I knew what a cornflower was, and where maize grew.  Bittersweet filled vases in the autumn, and thistles were embroidered on the tea towels.  It seemed natural that colors would be named after the realities that surrounded us.

* If we’ve already taught our children that fame comes by achieving stardom on so-called reality shows, it’s probably past time to start re-reading Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.

* The people at Crayola have forgotten they’re in the business of color. Super Happy, Awesome and Famous aren’t colors. They’re descriptive phrases, and not very good ones at that. When the people at Verizon are marketing phones named “Chocolate” and the Crayola execs are opting for “Happy Ever After”, something’s seriously awry.

* Names matter. Blue can be topaz, turquoise, azure or cerulean, but blue isn’t “Happy Ever After”. When Crayola asked 20,000 kids to tell them what things “looked like as a color”, that’s not a naming process. It’s an advertising and marketing gimmick geared toward giving children and parents a false sense of participating in a process.  It’s a disheartening approach for a company that has prided itself on worthwhile educational ventures.

We begin teaching children colors at a young age in order to help them interpret the world around them and communicate their vision to others. We begin simply enough with red, yellow, blue, green.  Soon enough we add brown, black and purple.  As time goes on, distinctions begin to be made as shades and hues become part of our visual vocabulary. Green is more than green; it”s lime, emerald or sage. Purple blooms into violet, lilac or fuschia. Beige appears on the horizon, hand in hand with its friends ivory, tan, parchment and cream. As the vocabulary of color increases, our vision of the world  becomes sharper and more discerning. We develop an “eye” for color, and see the beautiful complexities of our world in a new way.

At least, that’s how it should happen.  If Crayola has their way, we may develop a generation of  reality-show addicts who shop for “awesome” pillows to accessorize  their “best friends” sofa in their “super happy” houses hung with “happy ever after” drapes.  If that ever becomes the case, you can color me distraught.


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Related Post: Artists: Re-Writing the Book of Rules

11 thoughts on “Crayola ~ Marketing or Madness?

  1. Wow. Those marketing types at Crayola have spent far too much time in their windowless cubicles, studying statistics and “trends.” As you rightly point out, they have done a disservice to nature, to color, to language, to art, to children–and ultimately to their own product.

    It’s funny, but I could “see” each and every one of those original crayons as you named them. Each one. Distinct. And now I know someone else who remembers Burnt Sienna! (wasn’t there a Burnt Umber also?) Up until last year I had no idea what ‘sienna’ or ‘umber’ were other than differing shades of brown. That was the beauty of those big boxes; they were thesauruses for colors. You didn’t have just one shade, you had all of its different variations too: purple, yes, but also violet, blue violet, red violet, magenta lilac; not merely ‘orange’ but yellow orange, red orange, red red orange–bittersweet…So much is lost without that subtlety and precision.


    I love your phrase – “a thesaurus for color”. That’s exactly right. It’s also a reminder that realities like emotion have shades and hues. It’s perfectly fine to say someone was “angry”, but were they just angry? or were they irritated, incensed, apoplectic, miffed, or beside themselves?

    The more writing I do, the more I appreciate the interrelationships among all the arts, and the lessons that painting, photography, music, and sculpture have to teach us. There certainly are marketing campaigns that show an awareness of the arts and the value of the lessons they teach. Unfortunately, others don’t.

    Many thanks for the visit, and your comments – especially that reminder not to forget Burnt Umber!


  2. Bravo! I hope every Crayola exec/product development person makes a stop here — I couldn’t agree more.

    While I’m all for being able to say “I feel blue today,” or “today is a pink day!” I recognize that this is my own way of putting the colors I love into a feeling. And it’s different being a Jeanie Pink Day — which is probably the bright magenta I’m wearing now — versus the copy-paper pink or the pale pink sea salt I got for Christmas (aka Himalayan sea salt, for anyone who cares!). Anyone who tried to make that connection would probably be way off!

    But I couldn’t tell you what colors Best Friends or Famous are because all my friends (famous and otherwise) are “different colors” — and I don’t mean (completely) by ethnic origin. It’s relative to ME.

    What is “Famous”? I don’t know, but I bet my “famous” color isn’t yours or sixty other readers. And it’s a silly way to name a color. “Famous Gold” — OK, I’d buy that. “Awesome Chartreuse” — sure.

    I, too, learned my colors in large part from Crayola — and what I learned from that is there are lots of “tones” and “shades” — the burnt sienna, raw umber, and plain old brown — they’re all different. The same with every color in that palette — and yes! They DID mean what they said — You KNEW what a cornflower was, as you said! And I’m sure that having this mental color wheel as a child helped make working with color as an adult and a sometimes-artist much easier, more intuitive. And, no doubt, it helped me be a more descriptive writer as well.

    Boy, I like stopping by here!


    Of course I had to run off first and look at the Himalayan sea salt – that was a new one for me, but I’d love having a bowl of the rocks around just for their color. That’s a pink I could live with.

    You’re exactly right that linking color and emotion is a task for a particular person, not a marketing board. And while color can be used to evoke emotion, attempting to dictate the content of that feeling is simply wrong. When I read something like this – “Bear Hug” — A hue of harmony as kids want their homes to feel warm and loving just like a great big bear hug”, I know a few things immediately. Most important is the obvious fact that an adult has come up with that, not a child. I have a few kids in the neighborhood who’ll put up with my questions, and when I asked them about the Crayola color-naming, all of them asked, “What’s a bear hug?” Not definitive support for my position, but certainly suggestive!

    So glad you enjoyed the post. Who knows – if we let them get away with giving real colors silly names, it may not be long until they’re telling us that black is white, and vice-versa. (We could call the movie, “Crayola Goes to Washington”.)


  3. Hi Linda,

    I have not been around in a long time but had to laugh upon seeing your Crayola blog. Minutes before I had received an email about Don Marco – Mr. Crayola. So, if you have not seen his work before, give Don Marco – Mr. Crayola a Google.


    Hi, Sharon,

    I’ve thought of you so often! Hope all is well.

    In fact, I never had heard of Don Marco. I was amazed by his work, and interested in some of the speculative pieces about “how does he do that?” Someone was mentioned a process of melting crayolas and applying them like paint. I confess that’s something that never would have crossed my mind, but I suppose that’s because I’m just a crayon-and-coloring-book kid at heart!

    Thanks so much for the info. I’m going to post a link over at WU, too. I’ll bet there are some folks over there who haven’t heard of him, either!


  4. That’s the thing about marketing. I always imagine someone behind the curtain pulling my strings. They convince us that we need something that we didn’t even know existed the day before they introduced it to us.

    I was discouraged to read about the color “famous.” I wonder about the heroes and role models for children today. Fame and wealth seem to play a prominent role. I fear the contributions of the heroes of my childhood – firemen, policemen, teachers, parents – are overshadowed by the luster of fame.

    You never cease to amaze me with your observations. I love to visit this place.


    As I like to say, “Invention is the Mother of Necessity”. We’re constantly being told we need the next big thing. Twitter is my current favorite example, and when I run out of anything else to write about, I’m going to write about that. Who “needs” to know that someone just bought rutabagas in Publix for $.47/lb? Ah, modernity. It’s wonderful.

    As for fame and wealth, they might be fine qualities in role models, were it not for the fact that so many people are famous for being famous, and wealthy by means of ill-gotten gains. But I agree with your basic point – heroism is all around us, and we often simply miss it, blinded by our assumptions about the nature of heroism itself.

    I enjoyed your Valentine’s Day post – those hardware store certificates are a sure thing!


  5. You wrote the post I’ve been working on!! Ever since I saw Third Story Window’s post on the Crayola I’ve been writing about this too, not as much depth as yours.

    But I was totally thinking the same, that the 2008 names showed something disturbing. Why can’t kids know the names of things in nature that are the color?

    So, thank you for expressing my feelings in so much more depth than I had gotten to!


    You just keep on writing – I’d love to read what you have to say. It’s another example of those “kaleidoscope eyes” I love so much. One person reads a blog, and writes “this”, but another comes along, reads, gives the kaleidoscope a twist and writes “that”. It’s wonderful.

    I can’t tell you how I smiled when I read your phrase, “But I was totally thinking the same….” I think you might enjoy a blog entry entitled
    “…and I was like, “Dude, that’s the quotative use of ‘be like'”. It’s totally serious and absolutely, hysterically funny at the same time. At least, I think it’s funny. But I can be weird.

    Thanks so much for stopping by! A pleasure, indeed.


  6. Linda,

    Great again! You always send me off to find another quote, check out new words, and searching for something that keeps your story going – like this song. And it does, as what you write cycles through my mind’s vision, long after I have read your words.



    Thank you, again. I was just thinking about how much more exciting spring color was when I was growing up in Iowa. After a long, white winter it was a truly big thing when the first bits of bloom or leaf appeared. It must be even more so in your part of the country, where the season’s longer and the snow deeper. A really sharp manufacturer might start making horse blankets in daffodil, lilac and violet – they could fill the color void until the real thing came along!

    It’s always a delight to have you stop by with your colorful contributions!


    EDIT: Daniel, you just have to listen to Kristen Andreassen’s song Crayola!

  7. Hi Linda,

    A colorful post indeed. You have stimulated some thoughts that I’m afraid, this time, I beg to differ. I feel that kids have many channels to learn the concrete basics, but are given few opportunities to explore outside the box. Let kids learn their color names from their kindergarten worksheets, Sesame Street, or direct from nature, as you suggest. But crayons are for creativity and artistic expressions; in this realm, rationale could probably be a hindrance. Let their imagination roam free, I say, to equate colors with experiences. And since not many of us are endowed with Synesthesia, able to relate colors with sounds or other sensory inputs, Crayola might as well give us a taste of that rare ability, and help us feel what color is for … oh… ‘Jumping into Puddles’, or…’Ice cream after Broccoli’ for that matter.

    Marketing is madness often times, and while adults have the fun of associating fragrances with “Euphoria”, or “Obsession”, why not let kids experience “Fun in the Sun” with their crayons, and taste the “Awesome” feeling of coloring outside the lines every now and then.

    Again… Thanks for a thought-provoking post.


    Personally, I’m for “Ice Cream BEFORE Broccoli” ~ but that’s just me!

    I agree completely that crayons are for creativity and artistic expression, and I’m absolutely for freeing the imagination. I’m just convinced the approach the Crayola folks have taken in their naming process limits creativity and binds the imagination. I’ve been trying to find a way to express it differently, and finally remembered the words of Humpty Dumpty, in Alice in Wonderland. Remember his famous lines? “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,” it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

    I believe that words have meaning. Sometimes that meaning is rich and multi-layed, full of allusion and depth, and sometimes not. But the meaning is there, and if I try to make a word into something it isn’t, it’s a misuse – or abuse – of language.

    When it comes to color, the colors are what they are, and we have words for them – red, yellow, blue, teal, magenta and so on. If a clothing designer wants to communicate yellow with “awesome blossom”, that’s fine with me. But I really believe that if you rip a word such as “orange” away from the reality it represents and substitute another word, you simply aren’t communicating the same reality. I want kids to have that awesome experience of coloring outside the lines as much as anyone – after all, I’m the one who was fired for not being able to stay inside the lines – but you’ll never convince me that awesome is a color!

    However, I do have something I suspect we can agree on! Another reader sent me a link to Kristen Andreassen’s song, Crayola, sung on NPR’s Prairie Home Companion. It’s absolutely wonderful, and I’ll bet it will have your toes tapping just like mine!

    It’s always so good to have you stop by and make me think a bit more!


  8. Linda,

    Thanks for your reply to my comment… I’ve thoroughly enjoyed these exchanges, and the song is just oh, what words should I use, … totally cool. Thanks also for the wonderful quote you’ve added on the list of ‘Memorable Movie Love Quotes’ on my blog.

    … Keep on coloring! I’ve appreciated all your renditions of life, inside or outside the lines.

    Arti ~

    It’s such fun, isn’t it? And I meant to mention that I followed your discussion with Ian in Hamburg re: copyright infringement with interest. I’ve been introduced to the subject myself, and am busily learning all of the techniques for dealing with such. It’s always something, huh?


  9. More interesting to me are the characterizations of children, and the descriptions are clearly of middle class or above kids. They don’t want to worry? Who does? But millions of kids worry about domestic violence they see at home, having enough to eat, staying warm in winter, you get the picture.

    Kids want to make a difference and create Cinderella moments for others, so everyone’s story has a happy ending. I think a lot would be happy with a Cinderella moment for themselves.

    This bothers me, as you can tell, and I might write about it too, although it’s just a box of crayons. But can’t we all still remember the wonderful smell of those crayons the first time we opened a new box? Crayons are important and every child uses them.

    Maybe Crayola’s corporate color is rose-colored glasses.

    Thank you for another thought-provoking post.


    To be quite frank, I think a good bit was projected by adults onto the actual children involved in this project. But your point is well-taken. The Crayola folks weren’t perched on a stoop in Bed-Stuy or roaming East LA to ask their questions.

    I keep thinking about your phrase ~ “It’s just a box of crayons.” That’s true, but sometimes it’s the tiny things in life that reveal most clearly what’s happening around us. Another perfect example is the Village baker who produced those horrific chocolate cookies during the inauguration festivities. It would be easy to say, “Oh, that’s just a cookie.” But they were much, much more.

    Crayolas and cookies – the canaries in our particular tunnel of the coal mine.

    Always a pleasure to have you stop by – I love hearing your perspective on these things.


  10. wow,
    you stirred it up huh? what a great piece about colors, whether from a box or in the world around us. Like you said, it all sounds adult-generated to me as well.

    I love how you put words out there to all of us, to think about and how did you put it? twisting the kaleidoscope? how true and how fun, cause isn’t this all what makes the world-go-round…



    p.s. my fav was midnight-blue


    I’d forgotten about midnight-blue! I’m not a fan of blue generally, but that was a good one!

    I really appreciate you stopping by, and am glad you enjoyed my entries. I have my little kaleidescope that I found on the beach after Hurricane Ike sitting here on my desk. It doesn’t have any of the little bits of glass left in it, so when I hold it up it’s like looking through an empty paper towel tube.
    But, from time to time I give it a twist anyway – you never know what you’ll see!


  11. So basically i think you are sucking the fun out of little kids art. Does It really hurt for Crayola to want to spice up the crayons and not just have the traditional names. It stimulates kids imaginations and I think it is a good thing that they are trying to figure out what the population wants. The Crayons were made for kids so why not let them choose the names; it makes sense.


    My goodness. The fun that children have with crayolas – or any kind of paints, pencils or clays – isn’t my concern here. I had plenty of fun with crayons as a kid, and still love the smell of them. As a matter of fact, I think there’s nothing better than a brand new box filled with sharp crayons, and I wouldn’t want to deny any child the chance to enjoy them.

    I wouldn’t even have any problem allowing the children themselves to name new colors. But in fact, the marketing execs at the company named them after “input” from children. And the names which were chosen had nothing to do with color, per se. They were meant to promote a certain agenda and, from my perspective, to be acceptable to other adults.

    If telling marketing execs to move out of the way so kids can have some direct input into the naming process is sucking the fun out of art, so be it.
    But the fact is that adults often do more to squash imagination than nurture it, and that’s what I saw happening here.

    In any event, I’m glad for your input, and really appreciate your comment! You’re welcome any time.


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