May 6, 2014

Recent Cornell Study on Breakfast Cereals Sparks Criticism From General Mills

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A study conducted by the Cornell Food and Brand Lab found that cartoon characters on cereal boxes tend to look downward to match the eye level of young children, increasing the amount of trust and loyalty the consumer has for the brand.

Food company General Mills, however, called the findings “absurd” and “pseudo-science” on their blog.

The joint study — published last month in the journal Environment and Behavior by Prof. Brian Wansink, applied economics and management, Aner Tal grad and Aviva Musicus, who graduated from Yale University in 2013 — found that eye contact with characters on cereal boxes “increased feelings of trust and connection to the brand.”

“If you look at kids’ breakfast cereals, their eyes almost always point down … whereas if you look at adult breakfast cereals, they just look straight at you,” Wansink said in a video by the Cornell Food and Brand Lab.

The study found that children’s cereal box characters look an average of 9.6 degrees downward from an average height of 23 inches — which give the characters “incidental eye contact” with children.

The researchers also found that when cereal box characters appear to make direct eye contact with viewers, their brands are viewed as 16 percent more trustworthy, and viewer connection to the brands is 28 percent higher.

If cereal companies wanted higher sales, they should make their characters should stare straight out at viewers, the study concluded.

Tom Forsythe, who wrote the April 4 General Mills blog post in response to the study, said the company did some research of its own on the Trix rabbit — the main character focused on in the Cornell study.

“You’ll see that the Trix Rabbit looks in pretty much every direction. Up. Left. Right. Straight ahead. He even has his eyes closed on a couple,” he wrote. “He does look down on occasion, but do you notice what he seems to be looking at? That’s right — at the bowl of cereal pictured on the box … because he loves Trix.”

Forsythe also said that at a height of 23 inches, cereal box characters that looked down would not be making eye contact with any child of walking age or above.

“The average height of a 13-month old [is] around 30 inches tall,” Forsythe wrote. “If this research was in any way meaningful — which it’s not — these supposedly downward looking characters would be looking below eye level of the youngest kids possible. Perhaps Cornell would like to retract [the findings.]”

However, in an e-mail to The Sun, Tal said the researchers stood by the original results of their study.

“We value the lively debate research can spur and encourage people to go out and have a look on their own,” he said. “We stated in our paper that we don’t know if the eye placement and line-of-sight is intentional or coinciden[tal], but regardless, it’s the eye contact that matters, not whether it’s intentional or not.”

Tal reaffirmed the findings of the study and said the researchers knew “through many studies” that eye contact — even with a non-human figure — helps to “create a sense of friendship and trust.”

“Our general mission in the lab is to help promote healthy eating, and the current research aims to encourage that within the cereal domain,” he said.

Nabiha Keshwani contributed reporting to this article.