Companies need customers and children are a prime market, but clamping down on big sponsors risks throwing out good schemes along with the unwanted advertising. What is needed is a beneficial balance, writes Douglas Blane
A Big Mac followed by a Mars bar washed down with a can of Coke may sound like an ideal lunch to a lot of children. But health experts recoil in horror at the 1,000 calories of mainly fat and sugar in the tasty snack.
Throw in a portion of chips, cheese on the burger and a second can of fizz and wee Jimmy has just had his entire recommended daily intake of 2,000 calories in one go. Anything else he eats that day is going to deposit fat around his tummy, hips and thighs.
With a third of children now officially overweight, and research linking this to heart disease, diabetes and cancer in later life, the fast-food fan's chance of living as long as his parents is the only thing that is getting slimmer.
It is small wonder then that many people believe companies such as Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Mars should not be allowed within hailing distance of schools.
Britain's former Health Secretary Alan Milburn believes the Government should "take steps to remove confectionery and fizzy drinks altogether from schools" and Lothians MSP Mark Ballard is considering a Private Member's Bill in Scotland to set up a regulatory framework for the use of sponsored material in schools.
Penny Gibson, adviser on obesity to the Royal College of Paediatricians and Child Health, feels that targeting children with products that are high in fat and sugar should be banned.
Scotland's food tsar, Gillian Kynoch, has taken a more nuanced line since her appointment three years ago. After reaching agreement with Coca-Cola earlier this year that the company would remove its brand logos from vending machines in all Scottish schools and introduce healthier options such as bottled water, she said: "If you ban it from schools, kids will just buy it on the street. So we want them to stay in school and buy healthier choices."
The debranding of school vending machines is now complete, says Alan Halliday, Coca-Cola Enterprises' regional director for Scotland. "Except where a school has specifically asked us not to," he notes. "Some machines, for example, have Malvern Water - one of our products - on the front and some schools want that to stay."
The outside of the machines now carry graphics of young people being physically active, while the inside contains a range of juices and bottled water as well as the usual carbonated drinks.
Since the agreement was reached in Scotland, the debranding has extended to the whole of Britain. By this autumn, according to Coca-Cola's corporate responsibility brochure, "all our vending machines in schools will be modified to remove all branding from the front". The company has also consolidated its guidelines on dealing with schools into a code of practice.
"We were pleasantly surprised by the way the Scottish Executive tried to engage with us, rather than legislate against us," says Mr Halliday. "It made for a balanced discussion, encouraged us to be pro-active. If you just legislate against food manufacturers without involving them and trying to understand how the industry works, you solve symptoms rather than problems.
"Coca-Cola actively supports the decision to encourage healthy eating in schools and a balanced approach to diet and exercise."
The company is a big supporter of schools football, says Mr Halliday, such as the National Schools Cup in England and the Coca-Cola 7s (seven-a-side) in Scotland, both aimed at 12-and 13-year-old boys and girls. Each is described as its country's "biggest schools football tournament".
"We took advice from the Scottish Schools Football Association and got the best coaches involved, says Mr Halliday. "We set up seven-a-side competitions based on a Dutch model that shows kids pick up football skills more quickly that way.
"We are very passionate about it all and keen to get kids active rather than sedentary. Five thousand kids took part last year and numbers are growing all the time.
"Interestingly, the kids whose skill, speed and co-ordination stick in my mind are the girls, whose numbers are going up exponentially every year.
"We try to make it a very inclusive competition. Finalists play at Hampden Park, but all the kids get coaching from highly qualified football coaches, so they all get a little better by participating."
Not everyone wants to play football, even in Scotland, so another Coca-Cola initiative, Real Energy Vibe, aims to get children active through streetdance. Five thousand across central Scotland took part last year.
"We also do a lot of work at grassroots level," says Mr Halliday. "We get 30 to 40 letters a week asking for support.
"Recently we provided professional equipment for a basketball initiative in Paisley. We might supply sports drinks in bottles, just like the pros, to give teams of youngsters a boost at half-time. Lots of little things are happening, as well as the big stuff."
For McDonald's, 32,000 letters a year from schools around the UK asking for all kinds of information led the company to set up an education service, says community affairs and education manager Stephen Hall.
"Right now we are working with Alex Blackwood in Careers Scotland to set up something called McDonald's Education Month, which will be all about enterprise education.
"Starting early in 2005 our staff will go into schools and talk about food technology and business management - marketing, human resources, franchising. We will also set up work experience for the youngsters focused on food technology and management."
For a few years McDonald's has been running a football coaching scheme in collaboration with the Scottish Football Assocation. "There are two aspects to this: coaching for the kids on a totally inclusive basis - whole classes of boys and girls - and training the teachers to become coaches themselves," says Mr Hall. "Since the majority of primary school teachers are women who haven't played football, we are providing them with a lot of new skills.
So far more than 550 primary teachers have been trained as coaches. "We work in just about every education authority, going into 15 schools per authority each year," he says.
"We also run big football events at Hampden Park and elsewhere, with Kenny Dalglish, our head of football, and hundreds of kids getting shown around the stadium and being coached in football."
Taking a hard line with food manufacturing and retail companies such as Coca-Cola and McDonald's clearly runs the risk of throwing the footy out with the fizzy water. Commercial involvement with schools covers a wide range of activities, from billboard advertising and sponsored vending machines, through redemption schemes such as Cadbury's widely criticised football net for 5,440 chocolate bar wrappers, to free exercise books with advertisements and other sponsored and branded educational programmes and resources.
The scale can be anything from a local business advertising in the school play programme, to major brands running national projects open to all UK schools.
Educational consultants EdComs say teachers and parents do not have fixed attitudes to advertising, marketing and sponsorship in schools, but assess each scheme individually on its educational benefits.
"Our research shows that direct advertising through schools is less acceptable to parents and teachers than providing a sponsored educational resource or experience," says Kate Wooding, the external relations manager at EdComs.
"Our clients include commercial organisations such as BT, which funds school projects to improve kids' speaking and listening skills, charities such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, which recently produced a resource about safety around water aimed at young kids, and Government departments.
"Branded vending machines are often talked about in the same breath as educational resources that are free to schools or sports programmes encouraging kids to get physically active. But parents and teachers discriminate very clearly between these."
EdComs surveyed 500 parents and 225 teachers across the UK in April and found that around three-quarters believe businesses can provide expert resources which wouldn't otherwise be available to schools.
Parents rate work experience and mentoring highly, while teachers appreciate school visits and sponsored educational activities by trained staff. Both groups find branded vending machines and poster advertising in schools the least acceptable form of business contact.
A majority of parents say companies should engage with youngsters by delivering educational value rather than targeting them with advertisements.
Businesses gain through working with schools, even without direct advertising to children. They communicate their message, raise awareness of their brand, position themselves as potential employers, stimulate discussion of issues affecting their business, and - very importantly - associate their companies in customers' minds with education.
"Teachers and parents understand that businesses and schools both benefit from these kinds of partnerships," says Martin Finn, managing director of EdComs. "But the benefit to the school needs to be greater to justify getting involved with a confectionery brand compared to a charity.
"An absolute rule in deciding whether EdComs works with an organisation to develop a programme or resource is clear educational benefit that children would not otherwise get. If that exists, then parents and teachers recognise that while the organisation gains, the school gains at least as much and often more."
Code of practice
Coca-Cola's schools code of practice states:
* Commercial agreements with primary schools are not sought
* The classroom is respected as a commercial-free zone
* Vending machines in secondary schools should carry unbranded fascias
* Any trademark or logo in schools should be specific to programmes (eg Coca-Cola 7s)
* All vending machines should offer a choice of beverages including juice, water, diet and standard carbonated drinks
* Consumer promotions are not offered to schools and where on-pack offers are available from vending machines, no point of sale activity is offered
* No incentive or payment is offered to secondary schools where vending machines are installed