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Don’t look now. Cereal mascots have their eyes on your kids

Tony the Tiger

Kellogg

Persuasion Notebook offers quick hits on the business of persuasion from The Globe and Mail's marketing and advertising reporter, Susan Krashinsky. Read more on The Globe's marketing page and follow Susan on Twitter @Susinsky.

Adults wandering the cereal aisles may not have noticed, but cartoon brand mascots such as Cap'n Crunch, "Lucky" the leprechaun, the Trix rabbit and Tony the Tiger are reluctant to look parents in the eye.

That's because they're busy making eye contact with kids.

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That is the finding from researchers at Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab and Yale University, who have released a study they conducted on the shelf placement of cereals in grocery stores. Analyzing 65 cereal brands in 10 stores, the researchers noticed that characters on the front of cereal boxes marketed to adults tend to look straight ahead, while those on boxes marketed to children often look down -- at an angle of 9.6 degrees on average, to be precise.

The study also found that placement played a large role in marketing cereal to kids -- brands that are meant to appeal to them were placed 23 inches off the ground on average compared to 48 inches up for adult-targeted cereals.

The researchers calculated the angle of the gaze of characters on cereal boxes based on a perspective four feet away from the shelf, which is the "standard" distance for most shoppers. Based on those calculations, the characters appeared to be making eye contact with their target consumers -- whether adults or children.

Among the 86 brand characters the researchers studied, 57 sported the downward gaze and were targeted at children. By contrast, adult-targeted cereals had an average gaze of .43 degrees upward.

But does eye contact matter? In another study, researchers showed volunteers two versions of a Trix cereal box -- one with the rabbit looking down and one with the character looking straight ahead. They found that when the rabbit made eye contact, participants reported 16 per cent higher trust in the brand and 28 per cent higher connection to the brand compared to when there was no eye contact. They also rated the cereal more positively than other brands in that case.

The findings are interesting because, in both the United States and Canada, many of the biggest food marketers have pledged not to advertise to children under a certain age. But package design indicates there may be marketing going on at a subtler psychological level.

The study will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Environment & Behaviour.

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