Cap'n Crunch is staring at your kid for a reason

Cornell researchers studying "cereal box psychology" say the tempting gazes of all those sugar-hawking characters are carefully angled right at your tykes.

Michael Franco
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Michael Franco
2 min read

Hmm, do I see a new customer down there? Musicus, Tal & Wansink, Cornell
It's no secret that manufacturers place products at supermarket heights intended to appeal to their target market. That's why the fun sugary cereals are on lower shelves and the boring fiber-rich stuff is placed up high. But now, in a new twist, Cornell researchers have found that the cartoon-ey characters on those cereal boxes who make "eye contact" with their intended audience could create stronger brand loyalty.

To arrive at their findings, Cornell Food and Brand Lab Researchers Aner Tal and Brian Wansink, in collaboration with research assistant Aviva Musicus from the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, evaluated 65 types of cereal and 86 different characters in 10 grocery stores in New York and Connecticut.

Of course, they found the correlation between cereal type and shelf-placement height -- the average height for children's cereal boxes was found to be 23 inches from the ground, while it was 48 inches for adult cereals.

But they also discovered that characters on adult cereals tend to look straight ahead to meet the gaze of their intended victims -- um, I mean potential purchasers -- while those on kid cereals looked down at an average angle of 9.67 degrees, meaning Cap'n Crunch is forever scanning the lower level of the market for new recruits.

In measuring the gazes, the researchers used a distance of 4 feet from the shelves, which they say is the standard distance from which we evaluate products.

Next, Wansink and team attempted to find out if eye contact made any difference in shoppers' feelings about brands.

By showing two different Trix cereal box covers to a group of 63 university students -- one in which the rabbit made eye contact and one in which it didn't -- they discovered "that brand trust was 16 percent higher and the feeling of connection to the brand was 10 percent higher when the rabbit made eye contact," according to a statement about the work.

The takeaway, according to the researchers? "If you are a cereal company looking to market healthy cereals to kids, use spokes-characters that make eye contact with children to create brand loyalty," Wansink said. "If you are a parent who does not want your kids to go 'cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs,' avoid taking them down the cereal aisle," he added, sounding more dad-like than ever.

Awwww... the cereal aisle was my favorite place in the supermarket when I was a kid, and I'd have hated it if we'd had to skip it. I'm sure glad these meddlesome Cornell guys waited to do this research till I was all grown up.