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Don't look now Tony the Tiger is looking: Mascots on cereal boxes make eye contact to make sales

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A new study finds that mascots on cereal boxes stare downward to catch the gaze of kids to help increase feelings of trust in a brand. (AP)

Trying to avoid buying those sugary cereals?  Don’t go down the supermarket aisle with your kids, because Cap'n Crunch, Lucky the leprechaun and Tony the Tiger are all looking at them.

According to a recent study that looked at the shelf placement of cereals in grocery stores, mascots on cereal boxes stare downward to catch the gaze of kids to help increase feelings of trust in a brand.  

Researchers at Cornell Food and Brand Lab, who studied 86 cereal-box mascots in 10 grocery stores in New York and Connecticut, found that cereal marketed to children have mascots that look down (at an angle of 9.6 degrees on average), while cereal marketed to adults tend to look straight ahead. 

On average, kids' cereal boxes are placed at a shelf height of 23 inches (58 centimeters), while adult cereals tend to sit 48 inches (122 cm) up, according to the study.

“Eye contact with cereal spokes-characters increased feelings of trust and connection to the brand, as well as ultimate choice of the brand over competitors,” Cornell researchers reported this month in the Journal of Environment and Behavior.  “An overlooked application of this finding would be to use eye contact with spokes-characters to promote healthy choices and healthier food consumption.”

They gave 63 people two versions of a box of Trix --one that featured a white rabbit looking straight ahead at the viewer and a second version had a rabbit that looked down -- and asked them to rate their feelings of trust and connection to the brand.

Participants who had eye contact with the rabbit reported 16 percent more brand trust and a 28 percent greater feeling of connection to the brand, compared with participants given a box of Trix with a rabbit that didn't look right at them, the researchers said. 

"If you have eye contact with something, even if it's somebody on a box, it looks more trustworthy," Food and Brand Lab Director Brian Wansink said in a video explaining the findings.