Subtle Marketing

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The next time you take your kids shopping, beware. All those mascots on the front of cereal boxes are staring straight at your children. What do those anthropomorphized animals and irritating leprechauns want? Well, they want your kids’ attention, and if they make eye contact, you might just leave the store with a box of cereal you weren’t planning on buying.

They might look like harmless cartoons, but Tony the Tiger and the Trix Rabbit are more powerful than you can possibly imagine. In 2011, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania found children were more likely to enjoy a particular brand of cereal if there were illustrated characters on the box. While that probably doesn’t come as a surprise, a more recent study suggests something far more sinister about Toucan Sam and the Rice Krispies elves. As it turns out, they’re staring at your kids.

Earlier this year, researchers from the Cornell Food and Brand Lab analyzed 86 cereal box mascots from 10 different stores. Out of all those happy, smiling characters, 57 of them were aimed at kids, and they were all looking down at an average angle of 9.6 degrees. Not only that, grocery stories usually place children’s cereal at a shelf height of 23 inches, and if a child were standing about a meter away from the box, he or she would be looking straight into the great, big eyes of Cap’n Crunch or Fred Flintstone.

So what’s the big deal? Who cares if the Honey Nut Cheerio Bee has shifty eyes? Well, those downcast peepers are hypnotizing your kids. In a related study, researchers asked 63 students to study a box of Trix cereal. Some of the subjects had a box where the rabbit looked down, but others were handed a box where the bunny stared straight ahead. After the experiment was over, researchers found people who made eye contact reported 16 percent more brand trust and 28 percent more connection with the fruity-flavored chunks of corn.

In other words, when mascots make eye contact, they establish feelings of trust, and when they look at your kids, they’re trying to win their hearts and minds. But hey mom and dad, don’t think you’re safe from Big Cereal just because you’re all grown up. Cornell researchers found adult mascots, like Michael Phelps on a Wheaties box, are usually sitting at a shelf height of 48 inches and tend to look straight ahead . . . right at their grown-up victims. You know, they say eyes are a window to the soul. Well, in this case, they’re more like the doorway to your wallet.

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