Kids prefer any food that comes in a McDonald’s wrapper.

We’ve known for years that advertising plays a big role in consumer choices, a fact that makes Madison Avenue ad people a lot of money, but is it tantamount to brainwashing? I’ve never really thought so, but some recent studies seem to suggest otherwise.

Take for example the study cited in this New York Times article. Researchers took a bunch of kids and served them food from McDonald’s. Some of the food came in traditional McDonald’s wrappers and some came in plain white wrappers, but the important thing to remember here was that it was all McDonald’s food products:

Hamburgers, french fries, chicken nuggets, and even milk and carrots all taste better to children if they think they came from McDonald’s, a small study suggests.

In taste tests with 63 children ages 3 to 5, there was only a slight preference for the McDonald’s-branded hamburger over one wrapped in plain paper, not enough to be statistically significant. But for all the other foods, the McDonald’s brand made all the difference.

Almost 77 percent, for example, thought that McDonald’s french fries served in a McDonald’s bag tasted better, compared with 13 percent who liked the fries in a plain white bag. Apparently carrots, too, taste better if they are served on paper with the McDonald’s name on it. More than 54 percent preferred them, compared with 23 percent each for those who liked the unbranded carrots and those who thought they tasted the same.

That’s pretty significant and says a lot about how much brand image impacts children’s preferences. Here’s a bit more on how the results broke down:

Researchers ran taste tests on all five food items. First they served one-quarter of a McDonald’s hamburger wrapped in a McDonald’s wrapper, and another quarter in plain paper. Then they tried chicken nuggets in a McDonald’s bag with the red arches logo, and identical nuggets in a white bag. The third course was three french fries in a McDonald’s bag marked with the arches and the phrase “We love to see you smile,” and three fries in a matched white bag with no design.

Then the children tasted milk in a McDonald’s cup with a straw, and milk in a plain cup with an identical straw. Finally, they were served two baby carrots placed on a McDonald’s french fries bag and two carrots on a plain white bag. For each test they were asked if one tasted better, or if there was no difference. The study appears in the August issue of The Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

Fifty-nine percent of the children preferred McDonald’s chicken nuggets compared with 18 percent who preferred the plain product and 23 percent who saw no difference.

Even milk tasted better in a McDonald’s cup, with more than 61 percent preferring it compared with 21 percent who liked the unbranded milk and 18 percent who thought they tasted the same.

Think about that for a moment. The only difference in the foods was that one came in a McDonald’s wrapper and one didn’t and at the time of the study McDonald’s didn’t even offer carrots and yet the wrapper still influenced children’s preferences. I personally know of three-year-old kids who can’t even say the word “McDonald’s” that can sing the “I’m lovin’ it” na-na-na-na-na jingle and do so, often, to let their parents know they want to go to McDonald’s. That’s a pretty powerful grip on a very young mind.

This will only feed into the ongoing debate about commercial television aimed at children because it’s not just McDonald’s that has a heavy ad campaign aimed at the youngin’s. Turn on the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon and the ads are wall-to-wall toys and junk food. Not to mention the fact that a lot of the shows on Disney are just half-hour advertisements for Disney products to begin with. You can bet this will lead to more calls for regulations.

I’m not entirely sure that regulations are the answer as much as parent education and involvement. There is a tendency to claim that parents are overwhelmed by the pressure created by all this advertising — even the NYT article above includes a quote to that effect — but the simple truth remains that parents still have the ability to say “no” and to turn off the TV. They just need to be willing to do it. It probably wouldn’t hurt to teach your kids a little critical thinking skills along the way so they can recognize when they’re being manipulated by advertisers. Sure your five year old isn’t going to pick up on that right away, but start early and by the time they’re an adult they may have a pretty formidable arsenal for assessing claims that are thrown at them not just by Madison Avenue, but everyone.