According to the Daily Telegraph, McDonald’s has “pulled off one of the marketing coups of the year” by signing up more than 230,000 NSW students to its maths tutoring program.

The paper says that 46 per cent of the state’s secondary students have registered for the Maths Online tutoring program. Nationally, more than a third of Australia’s 1.46 million secondary students have registered for the program since March this year.

When students open the program on computers they see the McDonald’s logo and the words: “Proudly provided by your local McDonald’s restaurant.”

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Federal Education Minister Julia Gillard has reportedly commended the firm. And she’s a former Opposition health spokeswoman!

It really makes you wonder whether all the talk about cross government action to tackle obesity is just that. Talk. And pretty insincere talk at that.

So what do the public health crowd think?

Nutritionist Dr Rosemary Stanton writes:

“Parents have a right to know why the education of their children has passed from the government to vested interests.

McDonald’s haven’t sponsored this (and other) programs out of the goodness of their hearts. They want customers. Their sponsorship of this program also means that teachers won’t feel free to criticise McDonald’s, their products and even their marketing methods.

It’s also unlikely that governments who are now obligated to McDonald’s will do anything to bite the hand that feeds them. And our young trusting children will also think McD’s are good guys – or their teachers and parents wouldn’t endorse their products.

Are our education departments really so thick that they can’t see through this? And are we happy for sell our children to McDonalds?”

***

Jane Martin, a Senior Policy Adviser to the Obesity Policy Coalition and Professor Elizabeth Waters from the University of Melbourne, write:

“The Maths Online tutoring program is ostensibly supported by local McDonald’s stores, however it is likely McDonald’s funded the website and its development, and paid for expensive advertisements on prime time television – adding value to their positioning around corporate social responsibility.

Obesity prevention groups are concerned about this development because McDonald’s is in the business is selling burgers and fries, not education. This is a backdoor way to ensure that their branding reaches children, under the guise of education.

If the company was truly serious about providing tutoring to children, they should do this without using the distinctive McDonald’s branding.

The reach of the program, outlined in the press today, illustrates what good value this is for McDonald’s – particularly to target secondary school children.

This is a group who have more independence with their food choices as they are less likely to be under the control of parents and beginning to make independent decisions about what they eat, and how they spend their money, when they are out with their friends.

The recommendations of the recently released Preventative Health Taskforce strategy have acknowledged the importance of protecting children from the promotion of unhealthy food.  This example illustrates how the internet and educational programs are being utilized by fast food companies to reach and influence young people. This is an underhanded way to create and build a relationship with young people and the McDonald’s brand.

This is a situation which is more common in the United States, but likely to be something that we see more of if restrictions are phased in on junk food marketing to children through commercial television.”

PostScript: Jane Martin and Elizabeth Waters have sent in this additional comment:

“There is also evidence that migrant families new to Australia, and those with low literacy, may think that these sponsored programs mean that schools and governments support McDonalds and implies that McDonalds products are healthy.  This “halo” effect is similar to when McDonalds is placed in children’s hospitals – people think that the franchise provides financial support to the hospital, that the food is healthier and its presence means they are also more liklely to purchase the fast food.

Many schools, including those in NSW, have introduced policies and programs in these settings to ensure consistency in the approach around the promotion of healthy lifestyles.  This is undertaken by ensuring a healthy food supply in schools, through the curriculum and within broader school community.  The relationship with McDonalds and the educational curriculum creates inconsistency and undermines these policies and messages.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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