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How Cereal Boxes Are Designed To Hypnotize You

A new study finds cartoon mascots are always designed to make love to your eyes. Cap’n Crunch? More like Svengali.

How Cereal Boxes Are Designed To Hypnotize You

Next time you wander down the cereal aisle with your shopping cart, ask yourself this: Why on Earth are all the cartoon mascots–Fred Flintstone, Cap’n Crunch, the Trix Rabbit, and so on–staring directly at your crotch?

As it turns out, there’s a reason for that. Cereal boxes aimed at children are specifically designed so that the eyes of the mascots look downward, making direct eye contact with the sugar goblins that they are hoping to seduce.

In a study of over 65 cereals and 86 mascots across 10 different grocery stores in New York and Connecticut, Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab studied the characters on the front of cereal boxes. What they found is that all characters and people on cereal boxes –whether Lucky the Leprechaun, or Michael Jordan on a box of Wheaties–are designed to make eye contact with the intended consumer. In fact, they have almost exactly the same focal point: they are staring out from the box at a spot about four feet away, which is the average distance from the shelf of a customer walking down a supermarket aisle.

That makes sense. Cereal makers aren’t throwing mascots on their boxes for fun. It’s to create a psychological connection between a shopper and that box of dehydrated fruits and wheat flakes. But in the case of children’s cereals, this four-foot stare is actually aimed at a much lower focal point. Cornell’s researchers found that the eyes of spokescharacters on cereal boxes marketed to kids were aimed downward at a 9.6 degree angle; characters on adult boxes tended, on the other hand, to look straight ahead.

In conjunction with the way that cereal boxes tend to be placed on store shelves, with adult cereals on top shelves and the more marshmallow-laden sugar puffs lower, the result is that the mascots of kid cereals are always trying to make eye contact with kids, while adult cereal mascots are trying to catch the eye of grown-ups. Whether you’re a kid or an adult, the experience of walking down a cereal aisle is like running a gauntlet of unblinking corporate mascots, all trying to stare at you so hard that they bore their brand into your mind.

And it works. According to Cornell’s research, brand trust was 16% higher and brand connectivity was 28% higher when, say, the Honey Smack Frog looked you square in the eye, as opposed to, say, looked at something else on the box. Our minds are pre-programmed to trust people who look us in the eye, and that seems to be just as true of maniacally leering cartoon sugar peddlers as it is a person on the street.

More information about the study can be found here.

About the author

John Brownlee is a design writer who lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. You can email him at john.brownlee+fastco@gmail.com.