Penkava: Makin’ eye contact with Cap’n Crunch

They’re out there. Just staring at us. Just waiting to lock eyes with us and reel us in with their uncanny eye contact. So says a recent study about cereal box “spokes-characters” and the marketing science behind their cardboard gazes.

As if we didn’t have enough to worry about, now a trip down the cereal aisle of our local grocery store is like walking the sugarcoated, oat-fortified, whole grain gauntlet.

This study tells us that cereal boxes are strategically placed according to consumer age. Adult cereals are twice as high on the shelves as children’s cereals. Now, I’m not a marketing expert, but that makes a lot of sense because the last time I looked at human beings, kids were a lot shorter than grownups. But evidently some junior apprentice marketing researcher earned a lot of brownie points for that shrewd revelation.

Researchers have discovered that the more eye contact you had with a product, the more you will want to buy it. Geesh, that just confirms what we always thought: If you want to buy something, it’s a good idea to maybe see it first. That innovative theory probably got our junior apprentice researcher promoted to Chief Executive Officer of Amazing.

But beyond those benign marketing observations, there does seem to be a darker side to the cereal aisle. And, you might say, when it comes to sneaky psychological advertising strategies, the eyes have it.

It appears that there’s something to the angle of the eyes on the cereal boxes that are staring at us. For us adults, the eyes are placed at an angle of .43 degrees upward, which pretty much makes straight ahead eye contact. That way we can go eye-to-eye with the Minnesota Viking’s Adrian Peterson on the Wheaties box. That’s no big deal because it’s not like he’s charging at you ready to plant his helmet into your chest and run over you. Unless, of course, you’re a Chicago Bears cornerback.

But with the kids’ cereals it’s another story. The eyes of the characters gazing at our kids are set at a 9.67-degree downward angle. That means that Cap’n Crunch and the Trix Rabbit and the Fruit Loops toucan are all actually staring down into our children’s eyes. Along with Count Chocula and Tony the Tiger and that spry little leprechaun with his Lucky Charms.

I went to the grocery store and checked this out. Yep, the pupils of those character’s eyes are cleverly placed so that when little kids look up at the box, they are being eerily drawn into the 9.67-degree beady eyes of Snap, Crackle, and Pop. Methinks the Chief Officer of Amazing has gone from highly creative to a bit creepy.

But, then again, what’s the big deal? There have always been kids who have roamed the cereal aisle grabbing the cereals with the coolest boxes. It’s not like suddenly we’re going to have a generation of Children of the Corn Flakes.

And besides, if you have Disney princesses selling soup and SpongeBob peddling carrots, who cares if your kid wants to buy sweetened crispy puffed wheat from an eyeballing anthropomorphic cartoon bear?

So, folks, let’s not all get too concerned about the so-called “Eyes in the Aisles.” I have been buying cereal from Captain Horatio Magellan Crunch since the ’60s, and it isn’t because of his enigmatic eye contact. I just happen to like the taste of sweetened corn and oats in partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil soaked in yellow dye #5, with just a pinch of pyridoxine hydrochloride. That, and I just can’t say no to someone wearing a blue Napoleonic-style commander’s hat.

• Michael Penkava is a retired teacher who taught for 35 years at West Elementary School in Crystal Lake. He can be reached at Cap’n Crunch trivia: A captain wears four bars on his uniform, but Crunch only has three. But he also has four fingers instead of five, so who’s counting? 

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