(USA TODAY) When walking down the cereal aisle, the best line of defense for children and adults may be to avoid eye contact … with the cereal box characters.
It's nothing new that items are strategically placed in grocery stores. In the cereal aisle the top shelves target adults, while the bottom are generally filled with colorful boxes of sugary cereals beckoning children, but a new study suggests "cereal spokespersons" that look consumers in the eye, may also be influencing what we throw in the cart.
Researchers at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab released a study Wednesday published in the Journal of Environment and Behavior that shows along with strategic placement, characters on cereal boxes are designed to create eye contact to build brand loyalty with targeted consumers.
"There is a lot of research on the positive influence of eye contact in building trust between people," said Aner Tal, a researcher on the study from the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. "We wanted to see if that translated to characters on cereal boxes and consumers' decisions in the cereal aisle."
In a two-part study, researchers confirmed that the cereals targeting children are placed about 23 inches off the ground and those aimed at adults 48 inches high. After studying 65 cereals and 86 "spokes-characters" they found the cereals on the top shelves have characters staring straight ahead or slightly up to make eye contact with adults. For the lower boxes with cartoon characters with large inviting eyes, the gaze is focused slightly downward, to create eye contact with children.
While Tal said they need additional research to see if eye contact in a cereal spokesperson increases sales, they found it could be influencing positive feelings, and thus paying off for cereal companies.
The researchers showed 65 participants one of two versions of a Trix cereal box — where the rabbit was either looking down or making eye contact. They found brand trust was 16% higher and the connection to the brand was 10% higher when the rabbit made eye contact.
"The takeaway is that these techniques could be used to brand healthier cereals," Tal said. "Parents also know more about the pull children have towards some cereals."
In response to the study, the Grocery Manufacturers Association released a statement that, "the 'Eyes in the Aisles' study provides another set of data on the vast and complex topic of consumer behavior and decision-making." The association said the food and beverage industry is committed to responsibly marketing its products and promoting healthier diet choices.
Walking down the cereal aisle, a child is slammed with advertisements, and unlike their parents they aren't able to decipher marketing techniques until they are 11 or 12 years old, said Susan Linn, a psychiatric instructor at Harvard Medical School and the Director of Campaign for A Commercial Free Childhood.
While the researchers on the study suggest the findings empower parents to avoid the cereal aisle and marketers of healthy foods to counterattack with similar techniques, Linn said many parents can't avoid the cereal aisle, and healthy advertising is nothing new.
"SpongeBob is selling carrots; Disney princesses are on soup cans," Linn said. "We want children to develop a healthy relationship to food, one that is not based on a celebrity or particular character endorsing a product."
According to Linn, parents need to take back the control, by having conversations before they enter the grocery store, and setting rules that children can understand.
"We aren't buying a product just because you like the character on the box," Linn said. "Parents can make sure walking down the cereal aisle doesn't have any surprises."