The US arrival of McDonalds' new mascot, a grinning red cube named "Happy" who has courted European children for the past five years, has many in the media and Twitterverse wondering: Why?
"Happy is about bringing more fun and excitement to kids’ meals, including eating wholesome food choices like low-fat yogurt," explained McDonald's in a press release announcing Happy's US debut.
But the collective voice of social media has detected shadows in Happy's golden-arched irises. Fast Company called it "a nightmare creature from a candy-colored death world," whose "oversized chiclet teeth and torso-sized smile can't mask the calculation emanating from its heavy-lidded eyes."
Whatever one's opinion of Happy, which McDonald's says is designed to serve "as an ambassador for balanced and wholesome eating," it seems the fast-food company did its homework. The creature's design hews tidily to two recent findings of marketing science studies, namely, 1) be whimsical but not baby-cute, and 2) make eye contact with consumers.
One study that will be published in the August 2014 Journal of Consumer Research explored different types of "cuteness," based on the understanding that babyish cuteness – products or images with chubby cheeks, or big eyes – cause adults to behave in a more careful, restrained way.
"We were not convinced that all cute products would lead to the restrained behavior that stems from baby-cuteness. Our research examined whether there are indeed different types of cuteness, and if these differences could lead to more or less indulgent behavior," wrote the study's authors.
"Playful and whimsical" stuff, the researchers found, made people indulge themselves more. People ate more ice cream, for example, when give a playful ice cream scoop, than they did with a plain one. The authors believe the finding on food consumption may carry over into over consumer realms.
"Even though we examined the effects of playful products on indulgence in the domains of eating, shopping, and product usage, we expect that exposure to whimsical products could have similar effects on helping people focus on having fun and rewarding themselves in other important life domains like savings, debt repayment, or time management," the authors conclude.
Perhaps Happy's toothy countenance was meant to strike this balance: playful in a disarmingly unbabyish way?
Another forthcoming 2014 study, in the journal Environment and Behavior, found that mascots on cereal boxes are overwhelmingly designed to make eye-contact with shoppers. Those targeting adults looked straight into their eyes, in fact, and those targeting children looked down upon them, at an angle averaging 9.67 degrees.
The researchers, at Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab, also found that people seem to feel more trust and connection to cereal characters who make eye contact.
"Simply seeing eyes, even if it's a cartoon character, draws a lot more attention," the lab's Brian Wansink told ABC News. "It also increases your likelihood to want to purchase the cereal."
Who knows? Happy's grown-up grin and gaze might end up selling Happy Meals, too.