If Ronald McDonald wins your heart as a kid, he may stay in your head for decades, skewing your nutritional judgment, shows a landmark study with University of Arizona ties.

Long after you’ve stopped watching Saturday-morning cartoons, TV mascots still can have you believing that the food they pitch is healthier than it is, says the research, about to be published in the world’s top journal for the study of consumer behavior.

The study, which also examined breakfast cereal icons Tony the Tiger and Toucan Sam, offers the first scientific evidence that food ads aimed at kids too young to critically assess them have an enduring impact into adulthood.

“What children learn when they’re very young stays with them,” said UA marketing professor Merrie Brucks, one of the co-authors of the study, due to run later this year in the prestigious Journal of Consumer Research.

Two other co-authors also have Tucson ties.

Paul Connell, an assistant professor at State University of New York at Stony Brook, is a former UA graduate student whose 2008 dissertation sparked the research, and Jesper Nielsen is an associate professor of marketing at the UA.

Their work sprang from a series of experiments with hundreds of adults in the U.S. and the United Kingdom who viewed such ads as youngsters. “People rated pre-sweetened cereals and french fries as healthier when they were exposed to ads for these products as children,” said a synopsis by the authors. And many resisted changing those views as adults, it said.

The findings suggest the allure of such ads may last for generations as people who grew up with the mascots become parents and continue buying those foods for their children.

“It is possible that parents’ judgments of these products might be clouded due to their own childhood exposure to ads,” the synopsis said.

While the study looked only at a the most popular mascots, the findings likely hold true for other figures such as Cap’n Crunch, the Trix rabbit or the Lucky Charms leprechaun, Brucks said.

She expects the research to fuel debate over whether the federal government should restrict food advertising to children as part of efforts to combat the nation’s obesity crisis.

Firms that market food to kids are opposed to government rules and say the industry can police itself, said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Some progress has been made, but more is needed, and the new UA study could shine a light on such discussions, she said.

“There are lots of short-term studies that show how marketing affects children,” Wootan said, “but we’ve really been lacking data on the long-term effects.”

Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at calaimo@azstarnet.com or 573-4138.