General Mills Has Its Eye on "Pseudo-Science"

The cereal maker refutes a study that says kids are being manipulated by cartoon characters on cereal boxes.

Apr 14, 2014 at 6:30PM

Cereal Study

Source: General Mills.

Since Cornell University chose to prominently use the Trix rabbit to suggest that cereal makers are subliminally targeting kids in their marketing, General Mills (NYSE:GIS) has responded by laying into the researchers for publishing what it believes is a highly flawed study.

Although the famous tagline "Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids" suggests that the cereal maker wants kids to help influence purchasing decisions, the Cornell study went further by suggesting that cartoon characters appearing on cereal boxes typically gaze downward -- by 9.6 degrees! -- in an effort to make eye contact with kids. Because looking into someone's eyes supposedly builds trust, having the Trix rabbit look down to their level suggests General Mills is trying to engage the potential child consumer.

Titled "Eyes in the Aisles: Why Is Cap'n Crunch Looking Down at My Child?" the research seems compelling at first glance, but General Mills says the researchers are really talking gibberish. According to the company's response, a simple Google search found that in different variations of the box, the Trix rabbit actually looks all over the place -- up, down, sideways -- and even at times has its eyes closed. Moreover, whereas the study says kids' cereals are usually placed 23 inches off the floor, or about half the height of where adult cereals are placed -- and characters on adult-marketed cereals typically look straight ahead, they say -- General Mills found kids begin to walk at around 13 months old on average, when they stand around 30 inches high, while a 4-year-old stands 40 inches high on average. 

So, the cereal maker asks, what are these cartoon characters looking at exactly: "The kid's belt?"

The last I checked, toddlers also weren't independently wealthy, pushing grocery carts around, and doing the weekly shopping. Parents are still in control of the checkbook and still have final say over what their kids eat. Even if the study had validity, and I'm inclined to agree with General Mills that it does not, if all the cereal makers are doing the same thing, then there's no advantage gained.

Cereal Study Featured

Source: General Mills.

It's not much different from the controversy surrounding the old Joe Camel cigarette promotion, where anti-smoking crusaders claimed that simply because the camel was a cartoon, it automatically meant the tobacco company was targeting kids. Of course, they neglected to mention that Snoopy sells life insurance, the Michelin Man sells tires, Charlie the Tuna sells tuna fish, and a stork sells pickles, all products that are hardly targeted to a child consumer. Simply because Cap'n Crunch or the Trix rabbit happen to look in the direction of where a kid is standing doesn't mean there's some nefarious hidden meaning. 

Cereal is obviously an important component of General Mills' business, accounting for 16% of its $17.7 billion in sales in fiscal year 2013, and I'm sure it tries to use as many angles as possible to gain advantage, but Cheerios is the cereal maker's best-selling brand, and one of its biggest selling points is its health benefits. It's also lauded as being one of the first cereals moms introduce their kids to, yet the box features the cereal inside a heart. Not a cartoon to be seen anywhere.

To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and the pseudo-science of the study looks like a theory in search of a cause on which to pin it. But as Sigmund Freud supposedly once said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," and the Trix rabbit isn't eyeing your child.   

No "trix" up his sleeve
As every savvy investor knows, Warren Buffett didn't make billions by betting on half-baked stocks. He isolated his best few ideas, bet big, and rode them to riches, hardly ever selling. You deserve the same. That's why our CEO, legendary investor Tom Gardner, has permitted us to reveal The Motley Fool's 3 Stocks to Own Forever. These picks are free today! Just click here now to uncover the three companies we love. 

Rich Duprey and The Motley Fool have no position in any stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Money to your ears - A great FREE investing resource for you

The best way to get your regular dose of market and money insights is our suite of free podcasts ... what we like to think of as “binge-worthy finance.”

Feb 1, 2016 at 5:03PM

Whether we're in the midst of earnings season or riding out the market's lulls, you want to know the best strategies for your money.

And you'll want to go beyond the hype of screaming TV personalities, fear-mongering ads, and "analysis" from people who might have your email address ... but no track record of success.

In short, you want a voice of reason you can count on.

A 2015 Business Insider article titled, "11 websites to bookmark if you want to get rich," rated The Motley Fool as the #1 place online to get smarter about investing.

And one of the easiest, most enjoyable, most valuable ways to get your regular dose of market and money insights is our suite of free podcasts ... what we like to think of as "binge-worthy finance."

Whether you make it part of your daily commute or you save up and listen to a handful of episodes for your 50-mile bike rides or long soaks in a bubble bath (or both!), the podcasts make sense of your money.

And unlike so many who want to make the subjects of personal finance and investing complicated and scary, our podcasts are clear, insightful, and (yes, it's true) fun.

Our free suite of podcasts

Motley Fool Money features a team of our analysts discussing the week's top business and investing stories, interviews, and an inside look at the stocks on our radar. The show is also heard weekly on dozens of radio stations across the country.

The hosts of Motley Fool Answers challenge the conventional wisdom on life's biggest financial issues to reveal what you really need to know to make smart money moves.

David Gardner, co-founder of The Motley Fool, is among the most respected and trusted sources on investing. And he's the host of Rule Breaker Investing, in which he shares his insights into today's most innovative and disruptive companies ... and how to profit from them.

Market Foolery is our daily look at stocks in the news, as well as the top business and investing stories.

And Industry Focus offers a deeper dive into a specific industry and the stories making headlines. Healthcare, technology, energy, consumer goods, and other industries take turns in the spotlight.

They're all informative, entertaining, and eminently listenable. Rule Breaker Investing and Answers are timeless, so it's worth going back to and listening from the very start; the other three are focused more on today's events, so listen to the most recent first.

All are available for free at www.fool.com/podcasts.

If you're looking for a friendly voice ... with great advice on how to make the most of your money ... from a business with a lengthy track record of success ... in clear, compelling language ... I encourage you to give a listen to our free podcasts.

Head to www.fool.com/podcasts, give them a spin, and you can subscribe there (at iTunes, Stitcher, or our other partners) if you want to receive them regularly.

It's money to your ears.

 


Compare Brokers