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Are Cereal Box Characters Staring Your Kids Down? Researchers Say 'Yes'

May 11, 2015 03:20 PM EDT

(Photo : Flickr: Stevan Sheets)

You're not losing your mind. Cereal box characters really are trying to make eye contact with you, and researchers wanted to know why. Cereal companies are now calling the resulting conclusions "absurd."

An intriguing study conducted by the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, and published in the journal Behavior and Environment last year, investigated advertising strategies adapted by popular cereal box brands to earn a consumer's attention and even trust.

According to the Cornell research team, cereal box characters are designed to appear to be making eye contact with the intended consumer. Adult cereal boxes, for instance, are traditionally placed on eye-level shelves in a grocery store and feature characters that stare straight ahead. Kid's cereals, however, have been found to be on traditionally lower shelves and feature characters that look downward at a 9.6 degree angle so that they are more likely to meet the gaze of children.

The researchers determined this after analyzing the front illustrations of 65 different cereal brands from 10 different grocery stores. Each box's spokes-character was assessed by the angle of its gaze, four feet from the shelf - which is theorized to be the average distance shoppers stand from shelves. Feeling skeptical? Click here to read about criticism of the study. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Flickr: Mike Mozart)

And if the Trix rabbit staring into your child's soul is not creepy enough, the research team then moved on to see how influential this "eye contact" is.

According to the paper, researchers showed 63 people pictures of a Trix cereal box, featuring the brand's familiar white rabbit.

The participants were randomly chosen to see either a rabbit that made eye contact or looked away. They were then asked questions about the brand that were designed to expose feelings of trust or a connection with the brand.

According to the results, eye contact with the Trix rabbit resulted in a 16 percent higher likelihood to trust the brand and a 28 percent more intense feeling of connection with the brand, compared to the feelings of participants who saw a rabbit that did not make eye contact. This helps support the idea that eye-contact is then essential to earning long-time brand trust from childhood on.

[Credit: Brian Wansink / Cornell Food and Brand Lab]

However, there is plenty of room for skepticism . Tom Forsythe, the vice president of Global Communications for General Mills, dished out a scathing blog post criticizing the study and the citizen science that followed.

He points to the hard truth that 65 boxes is not exactly a sample size adequately large enough to draw concrete conclusions. Pointing to the example Cornell's team used the most, he goes on to show that over the years, the Trix rabbit isn't always looking to hypnotize your child.

"Did these 'researchers' not consider... Googling 'Trix cereal box?" he asks indignantly. "You'll see that the Trix Rabbit looks in pretty much every direction. Up. Left. Right. Straight ahead. He even has his eyes closed on a couple."

"He does look down on occasion," Forsythe adds, "but do you notice what he seems to be looking at? That's right - AT THE BOWL OF CEREAL PICTURED ON THE BOX. Because he loves Trix. I think that's been well established."

He's not wrong. Go ahead, try the Google search yourself. The 'silly rabbit' who just can't seem to get that "Trix are for kids" really doesn't seem to be staring off into the center of a supermarket isle. At times, he's looking straight down towards the bottom of a box. Unless your child has eyeballs for hair, that angle really wouldn't work out.

Still, it's important to remember that the brand has been well established and every few years that 9.6-degree gaze comes back. Is this some devious marketing ploy by cereal box designers to snag each new generation's heart?

I'll admit, I personally never fell for this supposed scheming, preferring Raisin Bran to other cereals. (Admittedly, I was a strange kid, but then again, who doesn't want TWO SCOOPS of raisins per box?!)

At the end of the day, my own opinion matters little, but I'd certainly like to see more work to resolve this "Trix Gate" business. It's been a full year since the last study. Isn't it time to break out the boxes, rulers, and impressionable youth, point to Tony the Tiger or that crazy white rabbit and ask "do you really trust that guy?"

For more great science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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