Fast Company

Education: Much Ado About Golden Arches

The New York Times' article about McDonald's in Seminole County, Fla., rewarding local students with Happy Meals for academic achievement has certainly provoked much commentary. I wasn't sure if I would post on the topic, but after seeing that one of our own expert bloggers, Tom Stern, has already tackled the subject, I figured I might as well offer another point of view.

My first question: what's the fuss? The idea of local businesses offering products and services for students' academic achievement isn't new. The article states upfront that the Seminole County McDonald's program is replacing one sponsored by local Pizza Huts. And if you look through the article's comments, you'll read many accounts from readers with fond memories of similar programs in their school districts. The one legitimate complaint seems to be the report card jacket, which features photos of McDonald's menu items. While dressing up report cards as ads goes too far, it has nothing to do with the premise of rewards itself.

Also important to note, for all tempted to rail against the greed of corporate America, is that the sponsorship is local. Rather than a diabolical scheme hatched by central headquarters to "catch them young," the program is the effort of a group of business owners that want to encourage achievement in their area schools. Is that so awful?

The problem, of course, is that they happen to be McDonald's franchise owners. Ever since obesity has become a pressing issue, especially regarding children, the golden arches have been the symbol we love to hate. Critics have, expectedly, raised concern that the rewards program will promote unhealthy eating habits to children.

But wait a minute. The program is tied to the release of report cards, which would at most occur four times a year. Going to McDonald's four times a year doesn't come close to building unhealthy eating habits. I'm sure most parents treat their children with "junk food" more often than that. If parents reinforce the importance of healthy meals, the rewards program will have little chance of undermining their efforts. If not, then the rewards program is hardly the problem, is it?

Another, more fundamental issue that many who balk at the program have raised is that students should achieve for achievement's sake. Back in fifth grade, my teacher always told us that school was our job and grades were our pay. While I agree with the underlying sentiment behind this statement (and remain grateful to this day for Ms. Peoples!), the analogy doesn't quite hold up. Adults work for money, which affords them living essentials and, if they're lucky, extra amusements and luxuries. Almost no one works for work's sake; they do so for these essentials and rewards.

Students' grades, however, offer neither -- they're living under their parents' roof and, likewise, Mom and Dad decide for the most part what amusements and luxuries they will have. While some students relish their lessons in school "just because," it's not really a natural inclination for most children after the novelty of K-2 wears off, and most of the rewards that result from education won't be seen for quite a while. That's why there's a need for an immediate incentive, which is usually provided by parents through love, encouragement, praise, and tangible rewards like allowances, presents, and, yes, special meals.

Some children, unfortunately, aren't given these incentives. And even when they are, it's clearly in the interest of a community to produce new generations of achievers. Whatever incentive community members can offer to see that happen, they most likely will offer it, especially in this high-stakes era of education. So rather than rail against another supposed instance of the commercialization of childhood (and an old-hat one, at that), we should be happy that business leaders in this community actually care about kids doing well in school. After all, McDonald's hardly needs special advertising.

Add New Comment

14 Comments

  • Kelly C.

    This school/McDonald's collaboration sounds A-OK to me...but then I'm another one of those kids brainwashed with Pizza Hut incentives in elementary school.

    What I really got a kick out of was Justin's comment:

    "by the time a child is like 6 (i don't know the exact stat) it will have seen several thousand hours of advertisments, which is more than any sort of messages their parents may be promoting. If that isn't unethical, I really don't know what is."

    Justin, you must not have kids. Any parent can tell you that with young children, you're constantly repeating yourself, sending the same messages over and over ("Don't hit your sister. Don't eat that bug. Finish your peas."). Kids get the messages their parents send - if, that is, the parents take the time and effort to send them.

  • HowleyKook

    What ever happened to a parents’ right to tell their little brat "NO"?

    A happy meal for a good grade wouldn't be such a threat if more parents exercised that right a little more.

    I guess it is much easier to blame the big bad corporation for fattening up our little ones than it is to teach moderation.

    That’s OK; the way we're headed there will be plenty of class actions suits and awards to make McDonald's pay for liposuction and tummy tucks.

    Oh well, back to my BIG MAC!!!

  • Stephen James

    As someone young enough to have participated in Pizza Hut's reading promotional, Book It, and a report card program linked with the now defunct Druthers's, I looked forward to these promotions as a kid, because my family did not eat out frequently. I do not believe it had any subversive influence on me. It is the repetition in early childhood that causes problems. One meal isn't going to change anything.

  • April Joyner

    Thanks for the comments! Justin, if you look at the original article, you'll find that it states that this program is indeed an independent, localized one. As for McDonald's "true" intentions, I'll agree to disagree, but it seems you're attacking McDonald's simply for making successful business moves.

  • Justin R.

    I completely disagree with all of you.

    First of, the locality argument is nonsense as McDonald's franchises are really not all that independent. The company prides itself on consistency of food, flavour, message, etc regardless of city, state, country. While there are slight differences in specific national markets, a hamburger and fries tastes exactly the same in every country. McDonald's has had labs to guarantee this for years. To think that this Fla locale is operating without the knowledge and/or wasn't first encouraged to develop new and local, consumer facing promotions is utterly naive.

    Secondly and moreover, the Fast Food Nation film, is a film based on a novel by Eric Schlosser. Obviously the treatment of his book is going to be more simplistic then the original, and if you've read the original you'll see that he is no 'attacking' McDonald's but merely pointing out the facts much like a journalist would do. He also wen't on to write another bestseller, Chew On This, written with the idea that adolescents and teens could read and benefit, which focuses on McDonald's blatant techniques on targeting children with the hopes of creating lifelong consumers. From Ronald McDonald, to taste-testing focus groups, to McDonald's playland, it has made a habit of going after our youth. In fact they have even used the Tellitubbies at one point to market to 3-4 year olds? Plus, by the time a child is like 6 (i don't know the exact stat) it will have seen several thousand hours of advertisments, which is more than any sort of messages their parents may be promoting. If that isn't unethical, I really don't know what is. If I didn't already know that this has been in their history, I would be less skeptical about the true motivations of this particular promotion. Also if you read Chew on This, you'll find that Mr. Schlosser does not discourage eating there, but rather says make an informed choice.

    Finally, while it is wonderful that McDonald's was the first to put nutrition facts on their food, or switch to more sustainable packaging, as a marketer its hard not to consider that McDonald's did that as a promotional tactic to maintain its brand equity. There are plenty of healthy-ish things on a McDonald's menu and it has even softened the garish Red/Gold branding in many more cultural attuned cities, but bottom line, it is a massive global corporation waging a war with other fast food chains and a growing well of healthier eating habits. To guarantee its future, like always, it will need to turn to the kids.

    I think advertising on report cards is not only wrong and unless the school approached the local McDonald's first, this promo smells. There are likely some good local eateries across that locale, couldn't the schools have approached a few establishments, signed them on and given vouchers to kids/families to eat there, helping local business battle McDonald's?

  • Corey Yarbrough

    I agree with you April! I also think people are forgetting to mention that McDonalds is one of the first fast-food chains to start printing nutrition facts ON the wrappers/cartons for ALL the food they sell. Since most politicians seem to think that this is the panacea to childhood obesity (at least from the fast-food dimension of it), I say we back off of McD and focus on the positive aspects of this partnership -- increasing academic achievement.

  • Alan (Robert Alan Black, Ph.D.

    I missed the initial article. I agree with the content of the lengthy comment that I am responding to.

    In the usual, too often, American Way, a single company or villan has been highlighted for the highly complex problem in many of the modern style countries in the world.

    obesity

    When the movie was released in the last year or two that attacked the fast food industry was released I wrote to the publisher condemning his highly narrow, simplistic attack on one company:

    McDonald's

    I challenge anyone in this country or any of the other modern living countries on the 6 primary continents to walk, peddle, drive down the typical street where food is sold and not see rows of chain food establishments or food courts (more Asian than European or North American) or other restaurants where the food is not truly healthy for the human body.

    too much fat
    too much starch
    too much sugar
    too much spice

    simply too much, too large of portions

    than a human being needs to survive or be healthy.

    I have had the good fortune to have spent time in 73 countries in my life and over 50 during the past 10 years.

    Except in extremely expensive restaurants I have always found the portions to be far more than my body needed.

    Occasionally I have found natural food restaurants where the portions were more realistic. These are very few to be found.

    Even some of the self-proclaimed healthy food restaurants use the

    regular (too large)
    extra large
    super-sizing mentally

    that they criticize about the fast-food chains.

    Eat to live
    rather than
    live to eat

  • Joseph Allan

    This school/McDonald's collaboration sounds A-OK to me...but then I'm another one of those kids brainwashed with Pizza Hut incentives in elementary school.

    What I really got a kick out of was Justin's comment:

    "by the time a child is like 6 (i don't know the exact stat) it will have seen several thousand hours of advertisments, which is more than any sort of messages their parents may be promoting. If that isn't unethical, I really don't know what is."

    Justin, you must not have kids. Any parent can tell you that with young children, you're constantly repeating yourself, sending the same messages over and over ("Don't hit your sister. Don't eat that bug. Finish your peas."). Kids get the messages their parents send - if, that is, the parents take the time and effort to send them.

  • Joseph Allan

    What ever happened to a parents’ right to tell their little brat "NO"?

    A happy meal for a good grade wouldn't be such a threat if more parents exercised that right a little more.

    I guess it is much easier to blame the big bad corporation for fattening up our little ones than it is to teach moderation.

    That’s OK; the way we're headed there will be plenty of class actions suits and awards to make McDonald's pay for liposuction and tummy tucks.

    Oh well, back to my BIG MAC!!!

  • Joseph Allan

    As someone young enough to have participated in Pizza Hut's reading promotional, Book It, and a report card program linked with the now defunct Druthers's, I looked forward to these promotions as a kid, because my family did not eat out frequently. I do not believe it had any subversive influence on me. It is the repetition in early childhood that causes problems. One meal isn't going to change anything.

  • Joseph Allan

    Thanks for the comments! Justin, if you look at the original article, you'll find that it states that this program is indeed an independent, localized one. As for McDonald's "true" intentions, I'll agree to disagree, but it seems you're attacking McDonald's simply for making successful business moves.

  • Joseph Allan

    I completely disagree with all of you.

    First of, the locality argument is nonsense as McDonald's franchises are really not all that independent. The company prides itself on consistency of food, flavour, message, etc regardless of city, state, country. While there are slight differences in specific national markets, a hamburger and fries tastes exactly the same in every country. McDonald's has had labs to guarantee this for years. To think that this Fla locale is operating without the knowledge and/or wasn't first encouraged to develop new and local, consumer facing promotions is utterly naive.

    Secondly and moreover, the Fast Food Nation film, is a film based on a novel by Eric Schlosser. Obviously the treatment of his book is going to be more simplistic then the original, and if you've read the original you'll see that he is no 'attacking' McDonald's but merely pointing out the facts much like a journalist would do. He also wen't on to write another bestseller, Chew On This, written with the idea that adolescents and teens could read and benefit, which focuses on McDonald's blatant techniques on targeting children with the hopes of creating lifelong consumers. From Ronald McDonald, to taste-testing focus groups, to McDonald's playland, it has made a habit of going after our youth. In fact they have even used the Tellitubbies at one point to market to 3-4 year olds? Plus, by the time a child is like 6 (i don't know the exact stat) it will have seen several thousand hours of advertisments, which is more than any sort of messages their parents may be promoting. If that isn't unethical, I really don't know what is. If I didn't already know that this has been in their history, I would be less skeptical about the true motivations of this particular promotion. Also if you read Chew on This, you'll find that Mr. Schlosser does not discourage eating there, but rather says make an informed choice.

    Finally, while it is wonderful that McDonald's was the first to put nutrition facts on their food, or switch to more sustainable packaging, as a marketer its hard not to consider that McDonald's did that as a promotional tactic to maintain its brand equity. There are plenty of healthy-ish things on a McDonald's menu and it has even softened the garish Red/Gold branding in many more cultural attuned cities, but bottom line, it is a massive global corporation waging a war with other fast food chains and a growing well of healthier eating habits. To guarantee its future, like always, it will need to turn to the kids.

    I think advertising on report cards is not only wrong and unless the school approached the local McDonald's first, this promo smells. There are likely some good local eateries across that locale, couldn't the schools have approached a few establishments, signed them on and given vouchers to kids/families to eat there, helping local business battle McDonald's?

  • Joseph Allan

    I agree with you April! I also think people are forgetting to mention that McDonalds is one of the first fast-food chains to start printing nutrition facts ON the wrappers/cartons for ALL the food they sell. Since most politicians seem to think that this is the panacea to childhood obesity (at least from the fast-food dimension of it), I say we back off of McD and focus on the positive aspects of this partnership -- increasing academic achievement.

  • Joseph Allan

    I missed the initial article. I agree with the content of the lengthy comment that I am responding to.

    In the usual, too often, American Way, a single company or villan has been highlighted for the highly complex problem in many of the modern style countries in the world.

    obesity

    When the movie was released in the last year or two that attacked the fast food industry was released I wrote to the publisher condemning his highly narrow, simplistic attack on one company:

    McDonald's

    I challenge anyone in this country or any of the other modern living countries on the 6 primary continents to walk, peddle, drive down the typical street where food is sold and not see rows of chain food establishments or food courts (more Asian than European or North American) or other restaurants where the food is not truly healthy for the human body.

    too much fat
    too much starch
    too much sugar
    too much spice

    simply too much, too large of portions

    than a human being needs to survive or be healthy.

    I have had the good fortune to have spent time in 73 countries in my life and over 50 during the past 10 years.

    Except in extremely expensive restaurants I have always found the portions to be far more than my body needed.

    Occasionally I have found natural food restaurants where the portions were more realistic. These are very few to be found.

    Even some of the self-proclaimed healthy food restaurants use the

    regular (too large)
    extra large
    super-sizing mentally

    that they criticize about the fast-food chains.

    Eat to live
    rather than
    live to eat