Plain vanilla. A sheet of paper. A blank canvas. The most neutral of the neutral of the neutral tones. The absence of color.
White. The color of something that's waiting to happen.
Are we the most unimaginative generation of people ever to walk the earth? Or is something else going on here?
"I don't feel the world has become bland in their color selection, but rather safer," said Michelle Killen, GM's Creative Designer for Exterior Paint. "In the past, we leased our vehicles and got a new one every two or three years. We felt comfortable getting a trendy color and not having to worry about getting sick of it or worrying about the resale value."
But that's changed. People are hanging on to their cars longer, and don't know when they'll buy their next new set of wheels. Instead of flashiness, people are trying to show quiet sophistication.
About 21% of 2011 model year vehicles globally were white, according to PPG Industries, which releases a list of popular colors annually. Two other neutral colors tied for second place: Silver and black.
Trying to decipher something about humanity by looking at the most popular car colors may be unfair, because people pick boring colors for practical reasons. Vehicles are the second-largest purchase most people make, and they tend to pick vehicles that they hope they can resell in a few years. And oftentimes, people don't get to choose their vehicle color. In the U.S., buyers often have to choose from what the dealer has on the lot. In Europe, it's more common to order one's car.
PPG found that 40% of automotive consumers would like a wider range of color choices. Automakers, though, tend to rely on safe colors -- the ones that are already selling well, because producing unpopular colors is an expensive risk they don't want to take.
The sour economic climate may be playing a role in consumers' decisions as well.
"When people go to the car, they think, 'I want to make sure the resale of this car is going to be OK,' " said Nancy Lockhart, color marketing manager for DuPont Performance Coatings. "Colors that are more traditional, they make the people feel that it's a safe tradition."
Car makers take great pains to choose colors that best fit the personalities and emotions of their clientele, said Chrysler spokesman Dan Reid. He said the company looks at fashion, architecture, consumer products and even people's lifestyles to determine new vehicle colors.
The regional break-down varies with white most popular in North America, black most popular in Europe, and silver most popular in Asia.
The Emotional Calculus
Peter Krueger, color expert at Precision Intermedia, says that some consumers may be attracted to unconventional colors that sound fancy.
"It hinges on status or class that would go into the color: I want a champagne car," Krueger said.
Fiat for its 500 has taken this strategy to an extent by offering 14 different colors with exotic-sounding Italian names like verde chiaro, mocha latte and rosso brillante.
New colors coming from PPG included wacky names. In 2014 to 2015, we could be purchasing cars with colors named Goldeluxe, a silver with an influence of a gold; White Nougat, a soft creamy white with a highlight sparkle; Muddy Waters, a tone of brown with a pearl luster effect; Grape Spritz, a blue fused with a purple highlight; and Pot O'Gold, a light green with a hint of gold.
A lot of psychology goes into color selection and the effect colors can evoke.
"Colors can actually have an affect on a person's state of mind and cognitive ability as demonstrated by numerous research studies," said Derrick Daye, Managing Partner of The Blake Project, a leading brand consultancy in Rochester, New York and Los Angeles, California. "For instance, red has been shown to increase a person's appetite, and pink to calm prison inmates."
In cars, white has a very practical function: It heats up less when parked in the sun. Maybe global warming is also affecting color choices now? White cars are easier to keep looking clean, too, so owners have to take fewer trips to the car wash.
The Economic Palette
Some people are using their color choices to show off their wealth, even if they aren't rich.
"Everybody is trying to evoke luxury, so the luxury brands are having a hard time trying to differentiate themselves," Lockhart said. Customers "may buy a lower end vehicle with a luxury color that seems stylish."
Black is on the rise because people associate it with luxury. And so are fancy paint effects: Your new car might be a Civic, but because it's covered int sparkle black, tri-coats, or a tint coats, it looks cool and fancy.
Even though the economic recession put a damper on "flashy" colors, companies will still make a certain number of cars in wacky colors.
"A few years ago, there was the trend when people didn't want to look flashy in the economy," Lockhart said. But "we're still seeing a large number of cars that are being done in purple, or yellow or orange."
They may not be very popular, but they have a big effect: "When it goes by, you notice it and you want to go to the dealership," Lockhart said. "It's an important marketing tool."
Bottom-line: Car color choice comes down to practicality, personal taste, emotion, and external stimuli like the economy. Broader color options will be around as long as automakers want to get noticed on the highway.