Political and media pressure against marketing to kids may not serve cash-strapped schools well.
McDonald's decision to move its national education programme away from primary school children (Marketing, 12 January) raises the question of whether an air of caution is emerging among companies faced with the potential political fall-out of their involvement with schools.
Such a shift in attitude would not be surprising following the government's efforts over the past year to put the food and drinks industry under the spotlight over issues such as the growing obesity problem and marketing to children.
The government's hard-line approach against the food sector is at odds, however, with its stated desire to see companies engage with schools to help provide needed funds. Many school kitchens are expected to provide the equivalent of a three-course meal for about pounds 1.50; a deal with a soft-drinks company to place a single vending machine on the premises can provide up to pounds 15,000 a year for the school coffers.
'It is a bit of a minefield,' admits Dave Lawrence, group planning director at family marketing agency Logistix. 'The education system is well-recognised as desperate for funds, but from the corporations' point of view, the media scrutiny has made any activity sensitive.'
McDonald's claims its shift in focus to older children is not down to criticism of its role as a heavy marketer to children, but rather because it wishes to mirror the government's emphasis on enterprise, employability and work-related learning. Accordingly, the company is ploughing funds into areas where it can offer specific expertise, such as franchising and food technology.
A spokesman for McDonald's stresses that although it is refocusing at a national strategic level, restaurants will continue to be involved with local primary schools - such as conducting school tours - as part of its education business partnership programme.
McDonald's is not alone in taking a step back from the education sector.
Last year Coca-Cola decided to remove its branding from 4000 vending machines in secondary schools across the UK.
Emma Wigzell, head of citizenship at Coca-Cola GB, says that with issues such as obesity coming to the fore there are added sensitivities for brands engaging with schools. 'There is a heightened sense of duty of care, particularly rela-ting to young people and the school environment. We see the classroom as a commercial-free zone - no logos, no promotions - which is why we made the decision on the vending machines.'
Some brands have actually benefited from the higher level of scrutiny on unhealthy products offered in schools. For example, there has been a push from school authorities for more waters and healthy juices to be made available.
Soft-drinks company Spring Cool, which makes a range of natural fruit-flavoured still and carbonated spring water drinks for school distribution, has seen a major uplift in business as a result. Simon Beale, the company's sales director, says: 'The days of a brand such as Sunny Delight being let into schools are long gone. Big brands …