Isn’t it nice when people with access to lots of cash come over all luvvy-duvvy and start doing nice little things for you? First Kevin wants to buy you a plasma TV and then decides you need another. Then the Reserve Bank decides you’re paying too much on the mortgage and drops the rate. Now McDonald’s arrives on the doorstep bearing gifts.

No, Macca’s isn’t offering to drop by and take the garbage out on Monday night, but they are a bit concerned about how little Johnny is going at school. In fact they’re so worried about the state of maths education, they’ve decided to pay for some tutoring on the side.

McDonald’s announced last week that it would be extending the reach of the free online maths tutor it provides as an employment perk for its teenage staff. Now the three teenagers who don’t already work at Macca’s will get their skills sharpened up. The program will be available to all Australian secondary school students and paid for by McDonald’s. Julia Gillard thinks it’s a great idea. And why wouldn’t she? That’s one less thing she has to pay for out of the Federal Education Budget.

Some less than trusting souls got a bit hot and bothered about McDonald’s pulling a swifty here. They suggested that this was all about them getting advertising on the cheap. If that really was the plan then Macca’s needs to seriously reconsider its marketing strategy, because it’s neither cheap nor likely to be particularly effective as an adverting vehicle. The only credit they get is a one liner on the maths tutor’s home page saying Macca’s paid the bill. For that, they’ve paid millions. What a bargain!

No, this is about making us (and more importantly, our government) feel good about people who dispense junk food to children. It’s part of a very definite trend in food marketing. Cadbury wants to assure us the cocoa in their chocolate was not picked by child labour. Nestle likes to help kids learn cricket. Pepsico and Kellogg’s have pumped $400m into the UK Government’s Change4Life program aimed at getting kids exercising. The Australian Food and Grocery Council, (the lobby group for them all) wants us to believe its members won’t advertise junk food to children (except as part of a healthy lifestyle — whatever that means).

Now that’s a lot of green to be chucking around in the hope you’d get the warm and fuzzies about Big Sugar. But this is a long game and these folks have played close attention to what befell Big Tobacco. When the government could no longer pretend that ciggies didn’t kill you, out came the laws and the taxes and the negative ads. And it became an awful lot harder (but not impossible) to make an honest living selling smokes.

Big Tobacco didn’t have a leg to stand on, but Big Sugar plans to have a bit more leverage when the inevitable occurs. One day the research on the truly deadly nature of sugar will seep into the public conscience and being a member of the Big Sugar club will be about as popular as a the proverbial banker at the barbie (you remember those St George ads don’t you?). When that day comes, Big Sugar wants to have some “discussion points”. Things like, how exactly are you going to fund that maths program you’ve become so dependent on? And what about junior sport? Who’s going to pay for that? And, and … stay tuned for more “gifts from Big Sugar”.

I think we should be carefully counting the fillings in the mouth of this gift horse. Let’s stop playing games (sponsored by Milo) and start doing something about the 60kg of sugar the average Australian consumes each year.

David Gillespie is a lawyer and author of Sweet Poison: Why Sugar Makes Us Fat (Penguin).

Peter Fray

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