Study: Creepy Cereal Box Characters Are Trying To Make Eye Contact With Children

It’s not just the wacky, colorful cereal commercials that are aimed at convincing children they must eat Frosted Flakes or Cocoa Puffs, a new study says the boxes themselves are designed to commune directly with kids’ souls. And what is the window to the soul? The eyes. The characters are making eye contact with kids.

The Cornell University Food and Brand Lab (H/T to Quartz) studied 65 cereals in 10 different grocery stores and found that not only are cereals marketed to kids placed half as high on the shelves as adult cereals — which makes sense to put them in the sightline of kids — but that the brand mascots are trying to make eye contact.

By “trying,” I don’t mean Tony the Tiger has come to life, but is more like one of those creepy paintings that is always watching: “A second key finding from the same study is that the average angle of the gaze of cereal spokes-characters on cereal boxes marketed to kids is downward at a 9.6 degree angle whereas spokes-characters on adult cereal look almost straight ahead.”

So if there’s a person on the box of say, Special K, she’s probably just gazing off wherever, she doesn’t want to gaze directly into your eyes. But that Sonny is cuckoo for eye contact, and his eyes say it all — “Buy me, kid. Throw a tantrum, do whatever it takes. I’ve seen inside your soul and I know you want Cocoa Puffs.”

When showing Tricks the Trix rabbit to adults in two ways, one with him looking straight ahead and one looking down, adults showed higher brand trust and loyalty for the one with the straight-ahead gaze.

While researchers didn’t study that effect in kids, they did suggest that healthier brands use the same tactics when marketing to kids — or keep children from the cereal aisle altogether if Sonny’s going to be making eyes at them.

Eyes in the Aisles: Why is Cap’n Crunch Looking Down at My Child? [Cornell University]
The creepy ways that cereal boxes get your kid’s attention [Quartz]