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General Mills calls kid marketing research 'absurd'

June 16, 2014

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from the monthly e-zine, CPGmatters.

With restrictions on TV marketing of products aimed at kids that are both voluntary and forced by social pressures, more importance is being placed on how cereals are marketed in the store. General Mills' recent dustup with Cornell University experts on the psychology of eating illustrates both the opportunities and challenges involved in this pursuit.

In Cornell's recent study, researchers found that cereals marketed to kids — including General Mills' Trix — are placed half as high on supermarket shelves as adult cereals. The average angle of the gaze of cereal spokes-characters on cereal boxes marketed to kids was also found to be downward at a 9.6-degree angle, whereas spokes-characters on adult cereal on average looked almost straight ahead.

A research experiment with 63 individuals then found that brand trust was 16 percent higher and the feeling of connection to the brand was 28 percent higher when the rabbit "made eye contact," as Cornell put it.

Takeaways? Cornell said that parents who wanted to avoid having their kids go "cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs" should "avoid taking them down the cereal aisle." And "if you are a cereal company looking to market healthy cereals for kids, use spokes-characters that make eye contact with children to create brand loyalty!"

On a General Mills blog site, Tom Forsythe, vice president of global communications, called the findings "absurd," questioning Cornell's measurement of shelf heights and their ability to read a downward gaze against the wide range of kids' heights.

Aner Tal, a research associate at Cornell University's famed Food & Brand Lab, told CPGmatters, "We don't think it's necessarily a deliberate, insidious strategy designed to influence children. And even if it were that, it would just be a way of marketing."

Indeed, Mr. Tal believes the study offers lessons on how packaging variables such as characters' gazes could be used "to promote healthier options" as well as sugary kids cereals. He also noted that food companies should probably give more attention to in-store marketing given how restrictive TV advertising to kids is becoming.

"The in-store environment is crucial," stated Mr. Tal. "Many of the grocery decisions that people make are on the spot and are determined by how they're feeling at the moment and by what's happening in their environment, and it's affected by whether they're shopping with kids, among other factors."


Discussion Questions:

Do you think the gaze of spokespeople or characters on packages can influence in-store purchases, particularly when it comes to kids? If yes, is there any reason marketers shouldn't use this knowledge to sell more product?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

Do you agree or disagree the gaze of spokespeople or characters on packages can influence in-store purchases, particularly when it comes to kids?


First, can we agree that when it comes to these cereals General Mills is trying to get our kids to eat junk?

Marketing junk as both a science and an art form is just a little trickier and requires less conscience than normal marketing. Is GM working to have just the right height on the shelves or the right angle of the cartoon character's gaze? Of course. But what does it matter compared to the list of ingredients?

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Ian Percy, President, The Ian Percy Corporation

The gaze of characters on packages or anything else that can sell more cereal to kids, and other products too, is worth a try. But with cereal sales slowing down one has to wonder if the research at Cornell's Food & Brand Lab isn't designed to find some magical information that isn't really lost.

What's lost is why eating out is becoming more popular than eating in. That's something that gifted researchers should be gazing in to.

Gene Hoffman, President/CEO, Corporate Strategies International

What I find absurd is Tom Forsythe's comment that the findings are "absurd". Shouldn't that be exactly what General Mills is trying to do? If there were a researcher who discovered this phenomenon for General Mills, wouldn't he get a big promotion and raise?

The company's job is to sell cereal—it is that simple. If the cereal isn't particularly good for the kids, it doesn't matter. Protecting the kids is someone else's job. The only reason they should throw this information out the window is the government puts restrictions on the packaging—hmmm, not a bad idea.

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Gene Detroyer, Professor, Independent

You know, I used to think exactly as Ian does, that these cereals are junk. But I was very startled to find that the ingredients list (with a few exceptions) and the nutritional profile for Cocoa Puffs vs. Honey Nut Cheerios was nearly identical. So yeah, my kids are allowed to have the Cocoa Puffs. But they order it from home, they don't go shopping with me to get them.

So what I wonder is, how much of these concerns are driven from an old-school view of how people shop? How many mothers are dragging kids with them to the store during the work week vs. one family member running into the store on the weekend or evening? You just can't assume that the kids are actually at the shelf to be marketed to— not anymore.

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Nikki Baird, Managing Partner, RSR Research

My question is, why involve Cornell? Anyone who has ever marketed a product in a grocery store knows this. It has been a standard marketing practice for years. What I can't figure out is why (with the population aging) that grocers seem intent on BOGO offers for fresh produce? It would look like someone should study senior needs and do some marketing to meet their needs.

Now back to marketing. Why is there a happy, healthy baby on Gerber packages? Every supplier uses packaging to present the MOST appealing image of the product it is selling. If they don't, then they are indulging in some sort of reverse psychology to appeal to a snooty "super intelligent" shopper.

I think all packaging images should be outlawed - just have black and white generic packaging. Furthermore, all packaging should be the same size and weight, and have the same (government approved) ingredients. Why don't we just take all of the fun out of life - go ahead, do it quickly - this drip, drip, drip is making me weary!

Ed Dennis, Sales, Dennis Enterprises

Cereal makers have studied how to sell their products for almost a hundred years! The way the package looks is anything but accidental. Identical products in white boxes just wouldn't sell, so protestations by General Mills that they're not trying to reach kids with the box are absurd.

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Cathy Hotka, Principal, Cathy Hotka & Associates

"...parents who wanted to avoid having their kids go 'cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs' should avoid taking them down the cereal aisle."
Case closed.


Much ado about nothing. The Food & Brand lab at Cornell has to expand their research to listening to mom's and dad's opinions. Those are the individuals who are making the purchase decision and the amount of "sugar," "gluten," "protein," "fat," etc. into our little Jacks & Jills.

I'm at the grandfather age, so I'm merely an observer when I walk the grocery/cereal aisle—which I do weekly out of a lifetime of habits. Mr. Tal is correct that people make decisions by in-store marketing efforts—price, packaging, product familiarity, promotional offer, etc.

I'd give Cornell's research a "I" for Incomplete.

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Roger Saunders, Global Managing Director, Prosper Business Development

Kids like cartoon characters—is that news? And they like the taste of sugar—another news flash.

When I was a child I had parents who made decisions about things like this. They were smarter than the cartoon characters and the marketing characters, and the big brother government characters too. Parents are still smarter than all those other characters—no matter which way they gaze.


A marketer's job is to sell their product. If the research is correct, then children may be swayed by boxes with characters looking at them. Now as a former child, please make the fun governors leave some of the joy in life.

Kids eat things they like. They don't things they don't like. While sugary cereal is not ideal, it is no more harmful than brownies or other treats that kids like. Responsible parents should read labels and find a balance for their children that can walk the fine line between Coco Puffs and kale. My children (and I) liked and ate "sugary" cereal and we were still able to live relatively normal lives. :-)

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Larry Negrich, Director, Business Development, TXT Retail

Considering what we know as a society about food and its ingredients, marketing to kids still trumps the ingredients. Notice that General Mills and Kelloggs still occupy the eye-level space in the middle shelves. The healthier cereals both for these companies and other brands such as Kashi, still occupy the ends of the cereal aisle. Although General Mills and Kelloggs have modified ingredients and marketing relatively recently, adding "whole grains" to many boxes for instance, the sugar content in the kids cereals is still absurdly high and the fiber content is not high enough. Read the simple ingredients of Kashi boxes, then read the ingredients of a typical General Mills box. Go ahead, do your own study, take the children shopping down the cereal aisle, blindfolded.

Alan Cooper, Training Consultant, Independent/Freelance

As father of a 3 year old, I can tell you a character's gaze matters. It can have both positive and negative influence. Eyes are the first things that a kid notices—and no wonder most cartoon characters have big eyes. I guess it becomes less important as one becomes older.

AmolRatna Srivastav, VP, Accenture

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