Tuesday, February 5, 2008

I'd like to teach the world to .... eat?!

Probably the title of this post is lost on some of our younger readers, but it refers to a classic ad by Coca-Cola, where a multicultural bunch of young people with bad haircuts (well, it was the 70s) sing about peace, love and understanding in the guise of selling more soda, all to the tune of "I'd like to teach the world to sing". Beautiful. I don't know about you, but it gives Crane and Matten an urge to go grab a couple of cold ones from the cafe here just thinking about how much our friends at Coke have contributed to racial understanding and that great one-world vibe. Well, not counting the record breaking court fine for racial descrimination in 2000, their problems with water use in India ... oh and the fact that here we have a Pepsi-only exclusive concession!

But anyway, we digress. The point of the post is not actually to talk about Coca Cola, but about one of the other great giants of American global branding - McDonald's. Anyone that has read our Business Ethics textbook will know that we always like to see what's going on in the world of Ronald McDonald - there is always a meaty story or two to get our teeth into (if you'll excuse the pun). This time round, we are curious to explore what exactly it is that McDonald's hopes to teach the world. Probably not, as in the Coke ad, to teach the world to sing, but one thing is for certain, everyone's favourite fast food company is not content to leave the teaching to mere teachers.

First up, from this side of the Atlantic, news that McDonald's is pulling its ill-fated sponsorship of elementary school report cards in Florida (thanks to Ryan for pointing that one out to us). Yes, that's right, McDonald's was giving away happy meals as a reward for good grades, complete with a beaming picture of Ronald McDonald holding up the golden arches on the report card envelope. You couldn't make this stuff up. Critics rightly questioned whether McDonald's was sidestepping its own pledge not to advertise in elementary schools, whilst the firm countered that this was "not advertising". Oh, right, well that's OK then.

Only last week, we blogged about some of the issues around food companies self regulating their marketing to children, and this looks like a particuarly good example of where a stronger system is necessary to prevent companies breaking their own rules. As it turns out, the issue caused such a stink that the initiative was quickly dropped by McDonald's, who probably couldn't believe all the fuss since they had just taken over from Pizza Hut who had a similar promotion on report-card jackets for about 10 years. Perhaps the real question is how Pizza Hut managed to get away with it so long, but that's another story.

Not content with providing "incentives" to American kids for getting A's, from the other side of the Atlantic comes news that McDonald's is going to be offering high school qualifications to its staff in the UK. With the British Government looking to provide more practically oriented qualifications, as well as hoping to leverage some of the massive investment in company training into nationally recognized skills awards, McDonald's is one of three UK companies slated to run pilot programmes that will result in A' level qualifications for eligible staff.

Given that even the British Prime Minister himself, Gordon Brown, has said that the McDonald's A' level will be a "tough course", we clearly should have nothing to worry about. After all, he expects them to be ultimately suitable for entry into university. But even though we don't have a problem at all with complementing school education with practical training, there are clearly dangers here in equating a rather narrow company specific training course - however good it may be - with a decent high school education. Corporations quite naturally train people to work in the company's best interests, and unless students are also given the tools to put this training into a wider context, there is not much prospect for developing well rounded educated individuals. It is not that a McDonald's training scheme couldn't be part of this, but it would need to be effectively and imaginatively embedded into the curriculum to ensure that students are not short-changed by a government simply contracting out the educational process to "socially responsible" corporations. Maybe they should offer some free happy meals to anyone who makes a good suggestion for how to do this....

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