A few years ago, one of the world’s largest sperm banks started turning away donations from many people with a rare, harmless genetic variant. The bank’s director said at the time that there just wasn't much demand for it, though there was an exception: In Ireland, the samples were selling “like hot cakes.”
The variant that many people were avoiding was of the MC1R gene, which is strongly associated with having red hair and fair skin. The director speculated that demand was low because parents-to-be preferred characteristics similar to their own.
It's unlikely that the sperm market has changed much since then, but demand for redheads is currently high elsewhere: a recent analysis found that 11 percent of the actors who appeared in primetime TV ads were redheads. The most common estimate is that two to six percent of the U.S. population has red hair, which means redheads are more common to see on TV than on the street.*
The report, put out by the media analysis firm Upstream Analysis, monitored more than 1,700 ads that aired on ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC between 8:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. on five different evenings earlier this year. Of those ads, about a third featured redheads, and more than half of the ads featuring redheads cast them as main characters.
Why might this be the case? Upstream suggested two possible explanations for redheads’ overrepresentation. One is that advertisers showcase redheads because of the color red’s association with sexual attraction; the other is that redheads’ rarity sparks reward-seeking in our brains, which are finely-tuned to sense novelty.
The first explanation isn’t very convincing. While the power of the color red has been made clear—men find women more attractive when they’re dressed in red, women find images of men more attractive when they’re on a red background, and waitresses wearing red make more in tips from men than those who wear white—there’s a corresponding body of research that shows people tend to find redheads less attractive.
Only seven percent of male respondents and two percent of female respondents said they preferred red hair in a 1978 study, and more recent studies back up this finding. The study’s authors said this “tremendous aversion” was perhaps attributable to the negative stereotypes surrounding red hair. (Those stereotypes do real damage: As children, redheads tend to have lower self-esteem and feel more like outliers than their peers.)
Upstream’s theory that marketers know viewers will be taken in by the novelty of seeing a redhead is a bit more plausible. When humans see something they know to be rare or unique, it cues a desire to inspect it more closely, a sensation advertisers are no doubt eager to capitalize on. So, even if people aren’t attracted to redheads’ scarcity, they might be moved to action by it.
Ultimately, there’s no clear-cut explanation of why redheads are overrepresented in commercials. Upstream’s analysis seems to imply that ad agencies are consciously deploying redheads to sell you things, but there are other possible explanations. It might be the case that employees of the ad agencies themselves were drawn to the redheads’ novelty during auditions, and selected them at a higher rate. Or perhaps redheads, after bottling up all that childhood angst, are more likely to turn to acting to express themselves, and as a result end up in more commercials.
* This sentence was updated to include the figure for the U.S. It previously included the figure for the entire world, which is one to two percent.
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