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Why That Creepy Character in the Cereal Aisle Is Eyeing Your Child

4 minute read

If your child begs, pleads, and throws a hissy fit to get you to buy the sugary cereal featuring a cartoon mascot on the box, all is going according to plan.

It’s fairly common knowledge that supermarkets are carefully, purposefully designed to pump up the possibility of spontaneous walk-by purchases. Milk and eggs are in some remote corner, forcing shoppers to stroll past a range of inessential goods in order to pick up the basics. Soda, candy, and trashy magazines fill the checkout area, where there’s a captive audience likely to be tempted into staving off boredom and grumbling stomachs.

Lately, stores have increased efforts to tempt an increasingly large grocery-shopping demographic (guys) with so-called “man aisles,”, where products aimed at dudes—lighter fluid, beer, cheese dip, jerky, batteries—are found in abundance. These sections often aren’t entire aisles; instead, they tend to be toward the end of an aisle, to maximize the possibility that guys, who aren’t known to browse from aisle to aisle, will see them while hunting for the items on one’s list.

The guys section is an extension of the well-worn tactic of grocery stores involving placing products strategically so that they’ll catch the eyes of the core demographic. Higher-priced goods tend to sit at the eye level of an adult, with the hope that shoppers in a hurry will grab the first tomato sauce or bag of coffee they see, rather than take the time to search for a better value somewhere below.

Researchers at Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab just released a study verifying that cereals marketed to kids—the sugary kind, with colorful cartoon mascots, including Cap’N Crunch, Trix, and Cocoa Puffs—are understandably placed much lower than cereals aimed at adults. The average height of placement in grocery stores for a kids cereal is 23 inches, compared to 48 inches high for grown-up cereals.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise, given all the other strategic design and placement that goes on in grocery stores. What parents may find surprising and, likely, disturbing, is that Cornell researchers also found that the majority of mascots on kids cereal boxes look slightly downward, increasing the chances that these characters will be making direct eye contact with your toddler standing in the aisle. Spokespeople and other characters on adult cereal boxes, by contrast, are almost always staring straight ahead, and because they’re placed among the top shelves, they too should be staring straight into the eyes of the demographic they’re trying to woo.

None of this happens by accident. Research shows that brand trust and connectivity to a product increases when eye contact is made, even when it’s just a weird cartoon rabbit or frog that’s gazing directly at a small child’s face. What’s more, when the uneasy feeling arises that someone is staring at you, there’s an instinct to turn your head and see who it is. This means shoppers are more likely to take a look at the product in the first place because it catches one’s eye. Naturally, all of this increases the odds that the cereal will wind up in your shopping cart.

What can you do to avoid having your kid manipulated, and perhaps more importantly, avoid having to deal with a meltdown? Brian Wansink, one of the Cornell researchers involved in the study, offers some advice that moms and dads may or may not find practical: “If you are a parent who does not want your kids to go ‘cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs,’ avoid taking them down the cereal aisle,” he says. Wansik also doles out a tip to cereal makers hoping to score points with families: “If you are a cereal company looking to market healthy cereals to kids, use spokes-characters that make eye contact with children to create brand loyalty.”

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