Science News

Eye contact with your cereal

Tue, 8th Apr 2014

Chris Smith

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Chris - Crunch time now for cereals because scientists have discovered that when the characters portrayed on cereal boxes make eye contact with you, people are much more likely to buy the product. And while adult-focused cereals tend to show the characters looking straight ahead, the more sugar rich cereals which are targeted at kids, more normally, it turns out, look downwards which will meet a small child’s eye line when they're walking around the supermarket. Cornell University’s Aner Tal is one of the researchers behind the work.

Aner - Hi, Chris.

Chris - Tell us first of all, why did you decide to look at this?

Aner - Well, growing up, I feel personally I had a sort of connection that I felt to Cap’n Crunch in particular and maybe that part of me wanted to know why that might be. And also, we noticed just going around grocery stores that a lot of the times, the cereals that are targeted towards children are looking down. So, that made us wondering, could it be that in addition to looking down at something on the package, they're also looking down at people crossing the aisle.

Chris - So, how did you then begin to explore how many packets were doing this and whether this was a general phenomenon and also, what impact it has on potential purchases?

Aner - So, we visited 10 grocery stores in Connecticut and New York states and we looked at about 65 cereals. 45 of those are targeted towards children and 20, not particularly targeted towards children and then we analysed the level of inflection of the eyes on these cereals. So, there are all cereals that had these box characters. What we found is that, for cereals that were targeted towards children, the angle of the pupils in the eye was directed downwards on average, to a level of about 9.6 degrees downwards. And that means that if you were a couple of feet into the aisle where children would be crossing, that a lot of the cereals are designed so that they're creating eye contact with kids. Now, we’re not saying that this is a deliberate strategy. It might be completely incidental because if you look at the packages, a lot of the times, what these characters are doing are actually looking at their bowls of cereal. But it also happens that because of the angle they're looking at, they might be creating eye contact with kids crossing the aisle.

Chris - How do you know? How did you investigate what impact that line of sight might have on a potential purchaser?

Aner - So, to follow that research, after we looked at the angles and how the angles are different between adults and kid cereals, we ran a lab study where we gave half of our participants a picture of a Trix cereal that has a rabbit on it that creates eye contact with them. We used just Photoshop to move the pupils around and the other half of the participants saw a box of cereal that, where the eyes, the pupils weren’t directed at them. We found that for people who were exposed to the cereal creating eye contact, they said that they felt more trust towards the brand, that they felt more connected to the brand. And also, when given a choice between that and a competing brand, Fruity Pebbles which is a similar cereal and flavour, they chose it more. So, 61% of the eye contact participants chose it versus 48% of the no-eye contact participants.

Chris - Now obviously, we don’t know whether manufacturers have already stumbled upon this and that’s why they're using it. So, we can't speculate on that. Obviously, what you could do is to use your finding for good because one could argue, we could start using the same strategy on more healthy options to encourage more young purchasers to influence their parents even to buy healthier foods in the future.

Aner - Exactly. So, as I've said, it might be that eye contact is incidental, but now that we know what it does, we can use that to promote healthier choices. So, a lot of the healthier cereals that are say, whole grain or don’t have as much sugar, aren't specifically targeted towards kids. But if we start featuring box characters on those that similarly create eye contact, maybe we’ll promote more positive feelings in children towards those cereals. And then maybe a child crossing the aisle would say, “Hey, I want that high fibre brand cereal versus the sugary Cap’n Crunch or Fruity Pebbles.”

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