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.
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.
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.