Researchers at Yale and Cornell explore the intriguing marketing psychology behind children’s breakfast cereals.
By: James Swift
From Smacks the Frog’s frozen stare to Count Chocula’s convivial glare, America’s breakfast cereal aisles teem with a plethora of cardboard smiles and slightly askew glances. According to a study recently published in the journal Environment and Behavior, however, those cartoon gazes may actually underscore an intriguing advertising tactic targeting the nation’s youngest consumers-in-training.
In “Eyes in the Aisles: Why is Cap’n Crunch Looking Down at My Child?” researchers at Yale and Cornell examined the impact of cereal spokes-character eye contact on consumers. After combing through the aisles of 10 grocery stores in Connecticut and New York, the authors of the study made several interesting observations about how the sugary comestibles are marketed towards kids, and how seemingly mundane things like shelf placement may have a profound psychological impact on knee-high customers.
“We noticed that when you go down the cereal aisle, a lot of the characters on the cereal are looking downward,” Aner Tal, a post-doctoral research assistant at Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, told Uncommon Journalism. “So we were wondering if that happened to be at a particular angle, and would it also create eye contact with kids who are walking by in supermarkets.”
After evaluating 86 different spokes-characters, researchers concluded that the average height of child-oriented cereal boxes was nearly two feet lower than breakfast products aimed at adult clientele. Furthermore, they found the average “inflection angle” of the spokes-characters’ eyes on children-targeted cereals to rest at -9.6 degrees, compared to a 0.4 degree spokes-character gaze on most adult-targeted cereals.
Looking at 65 cereal types, they determined the average height of spokes-characters’ stare on adult-themed cereals was about 54 inches, while the mascot gaze on cereals aimed at children had an average height of about 20 inches. From about four feet away, Tal said the range of the cereal mascots’ gaze would more or less result in direct eye contact with children. “A lot of people, when they’re shopping for cereal, walk even closer than that,” Tal said. “That actually makes it more influencing.”
The Eyes Have It
So, why do the athletes du jour on Wheaties boxes stare straight ahead at consumers, while Lucky the Leprechaun peers towards the supermarket floor tiles?
From a marketing perspective, Tal said that eye contact, in some contexts, produces positive consumer effects. “It can increase trust, it can increase pro-social behavior, it can generate positive feelings in people,” he said, “and that translates to these animated characters.”
According to researchers, a secondary study indicates that consumer-to-spokes-character eye contact tended to increase feelings of brand loyalty. Culling 63 test subjects from a private university, researchers displayed two versions of a Trix cereal box, with one featuring the iconic rabbit mascot with a consumer-eye-level stare, and another featuring the perpetually hoodwinked hare with a downward gaze. Per the results of the study, direct eye-contact increased brand trust by 16 percent, and lifted brand connectedness by more than 25 percent; furthermore, subjects were found to be likelier to report a preference to Trix over a competing cereal when the spokes-bunny’s eyes met theirs.
"What I think makes eye contact special is that it’s something, within the human realm and interpersonal relationships, that can make you feel more connected and have warmer feelings towards a person," Tal said. "So if it creates this connection between the person and the brand, it goes beyond just being a spokes-character.”
The combination of cartoon packaging stares and low shelf placement would seem to indicate some sort of collaboration between manufacturers and retailers, but Tal said more evidence is needed before that particular claim can be verified.
“From casual observation, it does tend to vary between stores,” he said. “But it’s not something I can answer definitively.”
Building "Cradle to Grave Brand Loyalty?"
“I think its important to look at this study in the context of everything that goes on with marketing to children,” Josh Golin, associate director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, told Uncommon Journalism. “There are all sorts of marketing that goes on on the packaging, not just with brand market mascots, but with really popular children’s media characters.”
Indeed, Golin said that many children vouch for products not because of their taste, but simply because Spider-Man, Shrek and SpongeBob SquarePants are featured prominently on the packaging.
“As children are walking down the cereal aisle, or the fruit snack aisle, or the cookie aisle, the packages are really beckoning them,” he said. “They’re really designed to get kids to bug their parents right then and there for the product that’s being marketed to them.”
Extensive research, Golin said, indicates that a majority of the food products most heavily advertised towards children tend to be items with high-calorie content. Beyond obesity concerns, he also believes that the ever-present nature of the products forces parents to navigate grocery stores “like a minefield,” and transforms children into “miniature lobbyists” for their preferred brands.
“It’s pretty insidious that marketers are deliberately trying to foster that conflict,” Golin said. “It’s really encouraging an unhealthy relationship to food, where eating is based on something that a character says is cool or what the prize is in the box.”
There are two primary reasons, Golin said, why marketers target younger children. “To nag their parents for products, and to create lifelong consumers,” he said. “They understand if they get you eating Cap’n Crunch when you’re younger, and therefore form these positive brand associations, then that’s worth more money to them than if they try and get you when you’re older.”
Golin said many marketers are aiming for “cradle to grave brand loyalty,” often via tactics that many consumers may not give a second thought.
“Part of what marketers are trying to do is influence the adult version of that child,” he said. “They’re trying to get a psychological leg-up by doing this type of marketing, and I think that’s fundamentally unfair.”
But if it Works for Cereal, Wouldn't it Work for Broccoli, Too?
The outcome of the studies, Tal said, could be of great use to manufacturers and distributors of healthier foodstuffs, whom often find themselves lost among a sea of pastel, corrugated mascots.
“Healthy foods are marketed in a different way than the less nutritious alternatives, so when you look at the spokes-characters, you see that they pop up less often with healthy choices, and I think that’s probably because of the target audience,” Tal said. “Kids don’t have as high a health conscientiousness as adults do, so the people who are more the target audience for the healthier products tend to be adults...but the adults also make the decisions for the children, and are also partly influenced by the children.”
To broaden their appeal to children, Tal said manufacturers and distributors of healthier foods could easily apply the same spokes-character techniques. “If you make healthy food more appealing to a kid," Tal said, "then they might ask for it from their parents."
With anti-obesity programs gaining steam across the country, Tal believes that many manufacturers and distributors are indeed turning towards such advertising approaches. In many instances, he said the same companies releasing sugary cereals have started using the same cartoon hooks to make their more health-conscious offerings more palatable to the Dora the Explorer set.
“You see reduced sugar Frosted Flakes, for instance, features Tony the Tiger,” he said. “Similarly, General Mills, has changed a lot of their products to whole grains, and they use the same marketing techniques.”
Shielding your Kids from Toucan Sam's Stare
Merely avoiding the cereal aisle, Tal said, isn’t likely to keep kids from being exposed to the mascot-branded marketing. Beyond the grocery store, children are bombarded by TV spots and online ads for such products, and within supermarkets themselves -- even beyond the breakfast section -- samples, discounted product bins and other in-store ads can easily grab a youngster’s attention.
“There are any number of marketing techniques you are being exposed to,” Tal said, “so what we advise people to do is to make their food choices in a situation where they are not being exposed to these things.”
Sticking to grocery lists, Tal said, was a time-tested way to curb impulse purchases. And verifying what most consumers have suspected for decades, he said his own recent research indicates that those who shop on an empty stomach are indeed likelier to buy more high-calorie foods than those who peruse grocery stores without a rumbling tummy.
If a child is familiar with a spokes-character via media, Golin said, he or she is obviously going to have a stronger association with products that feature that same character on their respective packaging. As a result, he said the most important measure parents can take is limiting their children's screen time.
“Because all these products that are being advertised on packaging in stores," he said, "are being advertised on the Internet and in television programs."
Echoing Tal, Golin also encourages parents to have discussions with their children before entering supermarkets, with an explicit grocery list ironed out to deter the wee ones from clamoring for the latest and greatest character-branded foodstuff. “This is what we’re going to get, this is what we’re not going to get,” he advised parents to tell their kids. “Make that expectation clear before you get to the store, to nip those situations in the bud.”
A Final Caveat
Despite the data, however, is there a chance that all of those leering, child-captivating stares are nothing more than coincidences, and not necessarily the crafty handiwork of cereal admen?
It's a possibility Tal does not discount. He readily notes that on some packages, the downward gaze of some spokes-characters could simply be attributed to the mascots peering into cereal bowl artwork on the package itself. And ever the ones to hop aboard a proven formula for commercial success, he believes eye-to-eye mascot and consumer interaction would be much more widespread as an advertising technique if marketers were deliberately using the approach.
“If it was being done intentionally,” he concluded, “we’d be seeing it used more often, across the board.”
Uncommon Journalism, 2014.