Is Cap'n Crunch Staring Straight Into Your Child’s Soul?

Photograph by Kristoffer Tripplaar/Alamy

Cereal marketers have worked out a sophisticated way to get children to pay attention to kids’ cereal in the grocery aisle: the old “loooook into my eeeeyes” method.

In a study of 65 cereals at 10 grocery stores, researchers at Cornell University found that cereals marketed to kids are often placed at a lower shelf height—and characters on the cereal boxes are typically drawn to make eye contact with children. The report even has a suitably creepy title: “Eyes in the Aisles: Why is Cap’n Crunch Looking Down at My Child?

If you want to get really scientific about it, the researchers found that children’s cereals are typically placed on the bottom two shelves and the mascots deploy “a downward gaze at an angle of 9.67 degrees.” This creates an average gaze for the characters a little more than 20 inches above the ground, which is pretty handy for grabbing the attention of small kids in the grocery aisle.

“Eye contact with cereal spokes-characters increased feelings of trust and connection to the brand, as well as choice of the brand over competitors,” the report states. Consumers are 16 percent more likely to trust a brand of cereal when the characters on the boxes on the supermarket shelves look them straight in the eye. That conclusion’s based on a lab study of 63 university students who were more likely to pick Trix over Fruity Pebbles when the rabbit’s eyes were digitally manipulated to look out at them.

Adults, don’t think you’re not on marketers’ radars. The researchers also found that the cereal-selling personalities on the boxes aimed at grownups tend to make eye contact, too. Here’s a video of Brian Wansink, a professor of consumer behavior at Cornell University, explaining the study:

The researchers step back from making any hard conclusions: The study doesn’t “state or mean to infer that spokes-characters are deliberately designed to direct their gaze downward in order to make eye contact with children,” they write. “Regardless, in some of these cases their gaze meets the eyes of small children as they walk down the aisle.” Additional studies could help them understand the use of eye contact to market foods to children, and these findings could also help companies market healthier cereals better. Or the findings might just make Count Chocula even more powerful.

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