Sugar-Laden Cereal Box Characters Lure Kids by Looking at Them

Marketers use psychology to position Tony the Tiger and his pals so they make eye contact with pint-size consumers.
Apr 3, 2014·
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

The next time you’re in a grocery store aisle watching a kid have a tantrum because her parent won’t buy a box of Trix, remember: Not only are children bombarded with advertising telling them that sugary cereals "are for kids," but the characters on the boxes are strategically drawn to make eye contact with them too.

Researchers from Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab and Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity studied dozens of breakfast cereals to figure out what influences kids to want to eat them. They discovered that brands market sugar-filled cereals to children in a way that’s both clever and creepy.

As researcher Brian Wansink explains in the video above, stores put sugary cereals at a child-friendly eye level—which is smart. The kid wants what she can see. But the brands also take things to a disturbing level of psychological mind trickery.

If someone looks you in the eye, you perceive that person to be more trustworthy. Characters on an adult-marketed cereal—like a box of Wheaties—look nearly right at you. In comparison, characters on child-marketed cereal boxes lure tots with a downward 9.67-degree gaze. That means the character’s eyes are at precisely the right angle to meet a child’s eyes.

The sugary marketers working for these companies are savvy enough to know that once they’re in good with the child, the cash will positively fly out of the parent's wallet. Speaking from personal nightmare-kid-tantrum experience, sometimes you just want the tears to stop and you’ll do nearly anything to make that happen. For some parents that may mean tossing an unhealthy box of sugarcoated grain into a shopping cart.

That can have dangerous implications for a child's health. The World Health Organization says less than 10 percent of daily calories should come from sugar. Meanwhile, a recent JAMA Internal Medicine study found that Americans "who get 25 percent or more of their calories from added sugar are nearly three times more likely to die of heart disease."

To combat this pressure, Wansink recommends shopping for cereal when your child isn’t around. He also has an intriguing suggestion for companies that make healthier breakfast options: borrow the psychological ploys sugar-heavy cereal manufacturers use. If that happens, maybe kids will be convinced to throw themselves on the floor for a product that's good for them.