In the News: It’s All in the Eyes—How Marketers Use Eye Contact to Draw in Consumers

April 11, 2014

Cap'n Crunch Berries cereal in milk.We all know their names: Trix the Rabbit. Tony the Tiger. Lucky the Leprechaun. They’re the colourful cartoon mascots that adorn the boxes of brand name cereals marketed specifically to children. But what is it about them exactly that makes them so appealing? According to a recent study, when it comes to the supermarket aisle, it’s all about the eyes.

The two-part study, conducted by researchers at the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, looked at the way in which the eyes of cereal box characters are drawn—specifically, the angle of their gaze. They examined 86 different cereal box characters in 10 grocery stores, measuring the angle of their gaze from 4 feet away—the standard distance from which people stand in a grocery store. They found that cereal boxes marketed to children were typically found on the bottom two shelves and that the characters on these boxes had a downward gaze at an angle of about 9.6 degrees. Likewise, cereals marketed towards adults were found at about mid-shelf level and characters on those boxes had a gaze directed straight ahead. In other words, cereal box characters are drawn specifically to make eye contact with their targeted audience.

In the second part of the study, the researchers wanted to determine the extent to which such eye contact influences people’s feelings of trust and connection toward a brand. To achieve this, they presented 63 adults with either one of two different versions of a Trix cereal box: one with the rabbit looking straight at them, the other with the rabbit looking down. The results showed that those who were shown the rabbit looking at them reported 16% higher levels of trust and 28% higher feelings of connection towards the Trix brand than those who were shown the rabbit looking down.

The implications of this study, of course, are that if these characters can elicit positive feelings in people toward a brand, this may in turn increase the likelihood that people will buy that brand’s products. Such is the power of marketing: By tapping into innate aspects of human psychology—in this case, our tendency to trust someone who is looking us straight in the eye as opposed to looking down—marketers can employ simple triggers we are not even consciously aware of to get us to buy their products.

This may invoke a sense of unease as one thinks of being manipulated by profit-hungry corporations; however, it is important to remember that marketing is not inherently good or bad. The psychological tactics revealed in this study can be used to encourage people to buy foods that are good for them as equally as it can for those that are not.

If you want to read more about marketing foods to children, UTP Journals has two great articles by Charlene Elliott, published in Canadian Public Policy:

In “Marketing Fun Foods: A Profile and Analysis of Supermarket Food Messages Targeted at Children” (CPP 34.2), Elliott provides a content analysis of “fun” foods marketed to children and argues that policy makers need to focus more on the messages targeted to children in the supermarket.

In “Packaging Health: Examining “Better-for-You” Foods Targeted at Children” (CPP 38.2), Elliott examines 354 supermarket foods targeted at children in Canada, assessing nutritional quality and marketing approaches of “better-for-you” packaged foods compared to regular food.

What are your thoughts on how food is marketed to children? Tweet us @utpjournals

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