Apr 04, 2014 • By

Our response to an absurd cereal study

When should companies respond to poor research – and pseudo-science?

It’s a difficult question. Sometimes it’s best to just let stuff go. Then again, sometimes it’s not.

So this one is getting a response — because it’s absurd.

Researchers at Cornell University recently published this:

“In a study of 65 cereals in 10 different grocery stores, Cornell researchers found that cereals marketed to kids are placed half as high on supermarket shelves as adult cereals – the average height for children’s cereal boxes is 23 inches versus 48 inches for adult cereal.  A second key finding from the same study is that the average angle of the gaze of cereal spokes-characters on cereal boxes marketed to kids is downward at a 9.6 degree angle whereas spokes-characters on adult cereal look almost straight ahead.”

Really Cornell?  I mean… we’ve never noticed – and we’re a cereal company.

So we did a quick study of our own.

We searched “Trix Cereal Box” in Google images. Go ahead. I suggest you do your own search. You’ll see more variations than these researchers apparently did. 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 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.  I think that’s been well established.


Did these “researchers” not consider – that the Rabbit might be looking at the cereal? Or did the idea of Googling “Trix cereal box” not occur to them?

We know Dr. Wansink’s work. He’s done some very interesting research. This is not his best.

For example, the study supposedly found that the average shelf placement was 23 inches, and the average height of the supposedly downward looking gaze would therefore be 20.21 inches. Their data.

So we looked up –on Google – the average age that a child walks. Did you know three out of four children walk at around 13 months? We didn’t. We then looked up the average height of a 13-month old.  It’s around 30 inches tall.

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.

Unless mom is dragging the kid on the floor. Or the kid is duck-walking.

An average four-year old is about 40 inches tall. A supposedly downward gazing character would be looking at what exactly? The kid’s belt?

The whole notion is absurd – and it would be laughable, if it didn’t also receive mainstream news coverage. Which it did.

Now take a look at the graphic Cornell included.

It was copyrighted, and therefore apparently drawn by the researchers themselves, so it’s clearly an attempt to illustrate their insights.

You’ll see that the Trix Rabbit is pictured. Guess where his eyes are looking on the box depicted.


Guess where they likely found that image? I’m guessing Google.

Perhaps Cornell would like to retract.

P.S. Take one more look at the Cornell graphic.  Mr. T cereal disappeared, I think, in the early 1980s. That guy on the bottom shelf? It may be C3PO. Now that’s cutting edge research.

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  • Julie Verhulst

    Seems like a stretch Cornell. And I don’t know about you, but nothing makes me trust research more than having a comic book like graphic to support it. Great response Tom & GM. The ultimate decision is in the parents hands.

  • Dave McDonald

    ROFL! Yes, with all of the world’s environmental, social and medical issues we’re faced with, University research is focused on the unique ability of cereal characters to “speak” to kids through cartoon eyes- apparently putting them in some sort of trance that persuades mom to *GASP* purchase a box of cereal! Shame on you , Cap’n- don’t you know we have laws against gazing downward at little Billy at a 9.6 degree angle? Perhaps I should tread lightly, though. As an author/illustrator of kids books, maybe I need to be a little more concerned with the angle of my character’s eyes on the front cover of my books…we wouldn’t want little Billy reading at the breakfast table!

  • Barb Swenson

    When I heard this story (yes, on network news) I was immediately reminded of a similar “research study” that found ice cubes in liquor commercials spelling “sex” or
    depicting sexual references. Being in the food industry, I felt naïve as to have not been aware of this apparently successful subliminal advertising technique. Consumer brands are brought to market after much research and development, including packaging. But time and money are a finite resource and therefore have limitations on how far a food producer goes beyond customary consumer research. I was glad to search “Trix Cereal Box” in Google images and see a great representation of more designs than I ever imagined. Conspiracy advocates make me both tired and sad…mostly I wonder how they have that much time on their hands. I am glad you took the time to respond. BTW – I love Trix!

  • Jordan

    Reminds me of many “studies” performed and executed with spot on data. By the way, I liked all your cereals much better before the whole grain revolution.

  • Jessie Canty

    “65 cereals in 10 different grocery stores”

    Guys, that’s like, an afternoon of work.

    I have to say though that this hasn’t been a problem for me, as my children don’t do the grocery shopping. I do.

  • licensetospam

    Nice try General Mills. When you are ready to apologise, please head over to reddit where the top minds and great thinkers have been watching your every move.

  • Brian Wansink

    Dear Mr Forsythe,

    A former Lab member (and former General Mills ABM) mentioned your blog in a text today, and I’m glad I saw it.

    I’m a huge believer in General Mills and your Institute, and we certainly meant no disrespect (even saying in the journal article that the characters were looking down at the cereal and that any eye contact to children was incidental). I loved your example of the Trix Bunny looking up, and that happens. What we noted were averages and I think something like 51 of 57 were looking down for an overall average of something like -9 degrees. We think we got most of the cereals on that market during the summer of 2012, but it’s just a snapshot of that one time period.

    I’d be pleased to talk with you if you have the time. If you’d like to skim the boring journal article (which can be downloaded at our website that you found), you can then contact my Operations Manager, Sandra, at src6@cornell.edu, to find a time after 4:00 CST that works best for us to visit.

    By the way, thanks for adding Boo Berry and Frankenberry back in to the line up to keep Count Chocula company. My 3 girls and I love them, but I think Fruit Brute is over the top.


    Brian Wansink

    • http://dataanxiety.tumblr.com/ Ellie K

      Hello Brian! It is I, Lisa Ellie Kesselman.
      Mr. Forsythe does make a decent point about the antiquated provenance of the cartoon characters on the cereal boxes. I can think of a plausible explanation though. If your researchers drew the illustration, you may have deliberately chosen popular culture iconography that would not cause any tangential trademark or copyright infringement issues. Either way, I am not the expert here. You and Mr. Forsythe are.

      My real motivation in writing this is to tell you that these findings (and your subsequent chocolate milk study) are generating a lot of interest and lively debate on Reddit!

  • joyce

    Well good to see General Mills taking the high road here. (hint, they aren’t).

  • Laura White

    Stop rubbing mixed-race couples our faces in your Cheerios ads.

    What used to be illegal for 98% of the duration of U.S. Civilization, is now upheld by corporate America as the height of morality.

    It’s called status whoring, and we’re sick of it. The little mulatto girl pouring Cherrios on the sleeping negro father was an act of aggression that spits in the face of that little mulatto girl’s European ancestors.

  • anon

    wow..youre’ really getting good at those corporate lies, aren’t you?— by the way. by allowing me to post on this website you are agreeing to allow me to sue your company… I do not waive my legal rights as a citizen…

  • aaronhuertas

    I saw this response referenced in a recent Ad Age article. The big question the study raises, at least in my mind, is how companies pick the images for the front of cereal boxes. It would have been better for General Mills to have shed more light on that subject rather than dismiss this research out of hand. It also struck me as inappropriate to call on a university to retract a study which was published in the peer-reviewed literature. I’d encourage General Mills to deal more constructively with independent research related to its products. Sometimes the claims might be wrong; sometimes they might be right, but there’s really no reason to take an antagonistic stand toward new or established science. More here:

  • http://www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/home.htm Donald E. Simanek

    Tom, you are too gentle in your exposure of the absurdities of the “Eyes in the Aisles” paper. Anyone who actually read the original Wansink paper (most commentators apparently didn’t) would (or should) have pinpointed its internal blunders and flaws. First it ignores the well established psychological fact that the apparent direction of eye gaze in photos or cartoons does NOT depend on whether you view the picture from above, below, or off to the side. Then it calculates cartoon eye angles by a screwy geometric method that is in error by nearly a factor of two, and quotes numeric results to three significant figures!!! This sort of sophomoric “analysis” gives science a bad name. The gullible media echo chamber and ill-informed nutrition activists swallow this garbage and trumpet this shoddy “study” as if it were a “scientific” breakthrough. Worse, they go beyond the claims of the Wansink paper with sensationalist headlines such as “Cap’n Crunch is looking into your child’s soul.” Cornell University should be ashamed for its promotion of this foolishness. You can read a detailed dissection of this outrageous scam here:
    http://www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/pseudo/cartoon_eyes.htm .