Food psychologists eyeball cereal characters

cereal box designs
Cornell Food and Brand Lab
Original Trix box, left, and Photoshopped version with eyes making eye contact - with college students in the experiment. Researchers found that characters on children's cereal boxes look down at an average of 9.6 degrees - toward shorter children.

Museumgoers shiver when portrait eyes seem to follow them around the room. Children in supermarket cereal aisles respond more positively to eye contact with cartoon spokes-characters: “Buy this one, Mom!”

And older, higher-educated consumers of sweet, crunchy carbs in gaudy boxes – aka college students in a Cornell Food and Brand Lab experiment – say they trust a brand when directly eyeballed by the Trix bunny and its cartoon ilk.

“Eye contact with cereal spokes-characters increased feelings of trust and connection to the brand, as well as ultimate choice of the brand over competitors,” Cornell researchers reported this month in the journal, Environment & Behavior, adding: “An overlooked application of this finding would be to use eye contact with spokes-characters to promote healthy choices and healthier food consumption.”

The title of the journal article (by Aner Tal, a postdoctoral researcher in the Cornell lab; Brian Wansink, lab director and professor of marketing in Cornell’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management; and Aviva Musicus, a former lab intern now studying at Yale University) is “Eyes in the Aisles: Why is Cap’n Crunch Looking Down at My Child?”

Private Protein? Freddy Fiber!

Hungry for a challenge “to use eye contact with spokes-characters to promote healthy choices and healthier food consumption,” in the words of Cornell scientists, by creating your own alliterative alternative to Cap’n Crunch?

How about Private Protein? Freddy Fiber? Maxie Mineral and the Vibrant Vitamins? Tweet your best ideas for health-promoting cereal spokes-characters – along with design suggestions, if so inclined – to @CUFood_BrandLab.

After studying 65 cereal brands pitched by spokes-characters in 10 supermarkets across Connecticut and New York – and the height of their shelf placement in relation to the eye height of average adult shoppers and children, then calculating cartoon eyes’ angle-of-gaze – the researchers still aren’t sure why cartoon spokes-characters look down on children.

“Baseball players on adult cereals like Wheaties are probably too busy watching the ball to be watching your children,” researcher Tal says. ”Our best guess is that the Trix rabbit is looking down at its bowl of cereal.”

That didn’t keep Tal and Wansink from using Photoshop to reposition the cartoon rabbit’s pupils to create direct eye contact, then asking 65 undergraduate volunteers to rate their agreement to the statements: “I trust this brand,” “I feel connected to this brand,” and “this box is attention-getting.” By a margin of 16 percent, the students favored the Photoshopped bunny making eye contact over the original critter intent on guarding its breakfast.

“Eye contact appears to increase feelings of trust and connection to a brand,” the researchers concluded. “Cereal box spokes-characters that create eye contact may indeed increase positive feelings toward the product, as well inducing choice over other products.”

Wansink recommends, “If you are a parent who does not want your kids to go 'cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs,' avoid taking them down the cereal aisle. 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.”

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Melissa Osgood