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Watch out — those sugared-cereal boxes are watching you

Cereal Box Psychology — Brian Wansink Cornell Food and Brand Lab

Do you have the uneasy feeling you’re being watched as you walk down the cereal aisle of your local grocery store?

Well, you are — in a way. For cereal boxes are purposely designed and positioned to ensure that any athlete or other person shown on the front of the box makes eye contact with you.

And that goes for the cartoony characters on your children’s cereals as well.

Furthermore, cereal manufacturers have good reason for catching you and your child’s gaze in the grocery store: It builds brand trust and loyalty.

Yes, without you even being aware of it.

Those are the key — and, frankly, troubling — findings of a study published online earlier this week in the journal Environment and Behavior.

Why troubling? Because other research has shown that food companies use cartoon characters most frequently with their unhealthful, high-sugared children’s cereals.

A 2012 study found, for example, that only two of the top 10 “family” cereals with the best nutrition ratings feature “spokes-characters” on their packaging, while eight of the 10 least nutritious ones did so.

A matter of inches

For the current two-part study, researchers from Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab evaluated 65 types of breakfast cereals (including 45 marketed to children) with 86 different “spokes-characters” in 10 grocery stores.

They confirmed what is already known: Cereals targeting adults are typically displayed about 48 inches off the ground, while those targeting children are placed mostly on a lower shelves — at a height of about 23 inches.

But the researchers discovered something else. The gazes of the “spokes-people” on the adult cereal boxes were distinctly different from those on the packaging of the children’s cereals.

On the adults’ cereals, any athletes or other people on the front of the boxes stared either straight ahead or slightly up at an average angle of inflection of 0.43 degrees. All the cartoon characters on the children’s cereals, however, gazed downward at an average angle of inflection of -9.67 degrees.

Those angles are perfect for making eye contact with adults and children standing about 4 feet away from the grocery shelf, which is a typical distance for shoppers.

Subtle but effective branding

For the second part of the study, the researchers examined whether eye contact with cereal spokes-characters influences consumer attitudes toward the products.

Sixty-three university students were asked to view and rate a box of Trix cereal. The image on the box was manipulated so that the Trix “rabbit” looked either down or straight at the student. The students were randomly assigned to one or the other of these images.

The researchers found that the eye contact did influence consumer attitudes: Brand trust was 16 percent higher and connection to the brand was 10 percent higher when the rabbit gazed into the eyes of the student-consumers.

“These findings are significant,” write the authors of the study, “because they expose another layer to in-store marketing, in which the characters draw the consumer in not just by their presence at eye level, but also by maintaining eye contact.”

Take-home messages

What’s the take-away message from this study for parents who want to raise healthy children?

One obvious message is to avoid walking through the cereal aisle with your kids, says Brian Wansink, a professor of marketing at Cornell University (and author of “Mindless Eating”), in a video released with the study.

“Pick up whatever you want while they’re playing somewhere else,” he says.

I’m not sure how practical that is.

A second take-away message “could also be for well-meaning companies who want people to eat better,” Wansink adds. “Take kids’ cereals and use the same thing to make healthy cereals work. Put Scooby-Doo on the healthy cereals and have Scooby look right at them.”

Hmmm…. That’s not very likely to happen. After all, Frosted Flakes, with its Tony the Tiger character, brings in more than $267 million each year for Kellogg’s. And Honey Nut Cheerios, with its honey-wielding “bee,” rakes in more than $357 million annually for General Mills.

Given those kinds of profits, a parent’s best bet is to just say “no” to sugary breakfast cereals. There are plenty of healthful alternatives.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 04/04/2014 - 11:36 am.


    Yet another reason not to buy processed food. Advertising and marketing are already manipulative enough even without this sordid attempt at branding.

    I’m glad I make my own granola and steel cut oats for breakfast these days.

  2. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 04/04/2014 - 12:25 pm.

    Thanks. I had the suspicion someone was watching,…

    …I just didn’t know who until I read your fine column.

    Keep up the good work, Susan !! MinnPost couldn’t do without you !!

  3. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 04/07/2014 - 08:35 am.

    Hidden Persuaders

    That is the title of Vance Packard’s 1957 book on this subject which I believe also appraised advertising and marketing practices to get the American public to buy things they don’t need. As Thorstein Veblen pointed out, advertising and marketing add nothing to the value and are aimed at disinforming consumers, not informing them. In other words, total waste.

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