As we approach the 2016 Rio Olympic Games amid the political turmoil engulfing the country, the use of colour will hold new cultural meaning to native Brazilians. The combination of yellow and green – the ubiquitous colours of Brazil – along with red, have become embroiled in the current socio-political debate, imbuing them with additional significance and shaping how they are perceived in the country. Understanding these new meanings is important for not only those following the unfolding narrative, but brands currently operating in the market, or looking to do so in the near future.
Although the Brazilian bandeira officially signifies the country’s abundant mineral wealth (yellow) and luscious forests (green), the prevailing cultural narrative of these colours codes Brazil as a space of vitality, energy, and natural health. The other important colour in the current political climate – red – connotes support for workers’ rights, most epitomised by Brazil’s Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT), who, since entering government in 2003, have championed the poor of Brazil through welfare assistance.
At present, however, these colours hold significant additional meaning.
The burgeoning economic prowess that formed the bedrock of the nation’s successful campaign to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Rio Olympic Games is in recession, and political corruption has been uncovered at the highest levels of government, including accusations that President Dilma Rousseff manipulated public finances to hide increasing public debt. Civil unrest has boiled over as national protests demanded change, with this culminating in Dilma’s impeachment. Rather than uniting with the eyes of the world upon them, Brazil fragmented along tribal paths into two colour-associated groups: yellow and green vs red.
For the anti-Dilma forces, yellow and green are coded as the cleansing energy purifying the nation, restoring Brazil from the sickness of corruption and economic stagnation. In using the colours of the nation as their hallmark, the anti-Dilma movement are invoking a nationalist crusade to cleanse and restore the country to its former glory. For those standing defiantly by their stricken President, however, yellow and green are coded as the colours of a coup d’état. For them, those wrapping themselves in the national colours are seeking to exploit the country’s economic woes to oust Dilma, replacing her with a candidate prepared to satisfy elitist desires of less governmental interference in the economy and prevent further corruption from being unearthed.
Whilst the colours yellow and green have taken on emergent meaning as the colours of either progressive change or of a coup d’état – depending on the politics of the beholder – the colour red has been imbued with a more powerful resonance.
For the pro-Dilma movement, red stands as a proud bulwark against right wing attempts to fan the flames of impeachment. For them, red is coded as the last bastion of democracy in Brazil – epitomised by their slogan em defesa da democracia (“in defence of democracy”) – in the face of attempts to, in their mind, undermine and oust a democratically elected President.
By contrast, the anti-Dilma campaign has deployed red to demonise Dilma. Frequently presented wearing a red suit – complete with the red star pin badge of her Workers’ Party – Dilma is characterised as the walking manifestation of communism: the very antithesis of the non-interventionist agenda pushed by Brazil’s elite. Given the accusations facing her, red has become culturally coded as the colour of corruption and economic regression (think also of economically being “in the red”), and, by extension, to be both feared and despised.
The hatred in some quarters for PT, and therefore for the colour red, is so extreme that it’s even given rise to instances of verbal and physical assaults against members of the public (not participating in protests) who happened to be wearing or be in possession of red items.
In the same way that consumers can choose to avoid associating themselves with brands that conflict with their ethical outlook (i.e. operate contrary to their beliefs, such as animal testing), the emergent meanings of these colours could have an impact on consumer purchasing decisions, as they seek to either demonstrate solidarity with the colours allied to their political beliefs, or reject colours antithetical to them.
The present situation in Brazil highlights the need for brands to be conscious of the semiotic associations engrained in their products and packaging. Brazil is not unique in hosting the phenomenon of politicising colour (e.g. Thailand’s 2009 divide between the Reds and Yellows), but merely the most current. Looking ahead to the summer, when the Brazilian team runs out in August to start the Rio games, the yellow and green of the team outfits will hold a much less cohesive meaning for Brazilians than it did during the 2012 London games.