McDonald’s has played a major role in the prevalence and spread of obesity throughout the United States and, once globalized, the world. Since then they have been criticized constantly for their role in the spread of negative aspects of American culture. McDonald’s has, however been successful in the countries in which they operate because they have adapted their offering to local tastes, accomplishing growth during a period of industry withdrawal. To fairly judge McDonald’s corporate actions, this paper applies the ethics of plain consequentialism as stated in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Using this framework, McDonald’s actions are gauged on their overall consequences, some are good and some are bad. The particular case under examination here was published in the Journal of Internal Medicine and correlates the number of McDonald’s in a country to the proportion of obese inhabitants.
In plain consequentialism, the morally correct action has the best overall consequences for society based on multiple aspects of morality. Moral actions can be gauged on three possible outcomes, the spread of happiness and relief of suffering, the creation of as much freedom as possible for everyone, and the promotion of survival for our species. Interestingly however, “Consequentialism does not itself say what kinds of consequences are good. Hence people can agree on consequentialism while disagreeing about what kind of outcome is good or bad.” (Haines, 2014) This creates a conflict of interest because while McDonald’s corporate managers make decisions that have positive outcomes for the company and their shareholders, the outcome for their consumers can be greatly negative. To fairly judge the corporate ethics, these two outcomes must be weighed against each other.
The Positive Consequences:
McDonald’s has accomplished incredible success throughout the lifetime of their operation by providing “quality” food for reasonable prices. When they started in 1940, they only served BBQ plates, but when they incorporated the McDonalds we know today in 1955, they immediately started producing and selling cheap “fare”, mainly hamburgers drinks. In those days, the value of their company to society was cheap food and fast service which played a major role in their growth to success over all of their competitors. (Kottke, 2013) To the public, they increased the speed in which society could operate and decreased the theoretical “cost of living” if people ate at McDonald’s on a regular basis. They also created an increasingly large amount of jobs in the U.S. as well as value for their shareholders, starting their stock selling at 35 cents per share to nearly $97 today (Fig. 1). (Yahoo, 2014)
The food McDonald’s sells was never intended to cause any harm to anyone, simply allow people to eat cheap food that maintains a desirable taste. The desirable consequence of this action is an increase in happiness for everyone, both the corporation as well as the consumer. This has played a major role in keeping McDonald’s more than 3 times as successful as their competitors (fig.2). (Princeton) McDonald’s also plays a moral role of increasing the survival of our human race because they decreased price of food and forced the market to minimize costs. This has increased the prevalence of low cost food worldwide and decreased hunger for those with limited means. This outcome is positive for society and the consequences of providing cheap food have a positive effect for people who would otherwise not be able to afford it, increasing both survival as well as happiness for people.
The development of jobs in areas in which McDonald’s operates is significant as well. While most positions pay minimum wage, McDonalds has focused rigorously on employee training to reduce turnover and build intellectual value as quickly as possible. For managers, McDonalds offers leadership and mentoring programs to help make each store a success. These managers then train employees in the communities that the McDonald’s operates, creating multiple tiers of jobs. When McDonald’s was named one of the top 5 companies in the U.S., and article circulated on their “Recipe for Success” stating “Dimensions of McDonald’s talent management initiatives include: career guidance for crew and managers; executive coaching; succession planning; and a college degree connection program. Restaurant managers and above earn college credit recommendations for all management curriculum through American Council on Education.” It is programs like this that help train managers young aspiring managers all over the world. (Weinstein, 2012)
The value of McDonalds has been globalized over the past 60 years. The positive effects they have on society have therefore also increased greatly to serve as many customers as possible. (Plunkett, 2013) Studies in multiple areas have concluded that “unhealthy” food costs less in poorer areas than does “healthy” food. “In a study in the Hamstead area of London, Mooney shows that two diets, one meeting and one not meeting contemporary nutritional guidelines, differed in cost, with the “healthier” diet consistently costing more.” (White, 2007) This shows that the introduction of cheap and “unhealthy” food has a positive effect on communities that would otherwise be unable to survive. In addition to this, McDonald’s alters their product offering for each region they operate in, increasing the happiness and availability of options for customers. (Adams, 2007) Recognizing that their public offering is low cost food, McDonalds has also become involved in food programs for the poor and unhealthy such as “The Global Advisory Council for Nutrition and Balanced Active Lifestyles”. (Adams, 2007) It is through CSR programs such as this one that McDonald’s attempts to limit the negative consequences of their global operations.
The Negative Consequences:
The negative consequences of McDonald’s operations are a bit more visible. Employees receive minimal wages and benefits, products offered cause obesity, the marketing targets children, low-cost increases consumption. (Center, 2010) McDonald’s is a publically traded company and the management team has spent the past 65 years increasing the value of shares in the company. To maximize profits, McDonald’s has taken shortcuts in development and product offering. They also use strategic placement and marketing to target specific consumers who may be more vulnerable to the consequences. (White, 2007) As they do this around the world, their success and wealth grows, but the consequences of their actions also bring unhappiness for the overweight who cannot avoid their food. In the main case under examination, there is a positive correlation between the entrance of McDonald’s into a country and a rise in obesity.
The incredible amount of food that McDonald’s serves every day is not healthy for consumers, especially those who eat it often. People eat it because it has been flavored and sweetened to taste appealing, almost addicting. While adults in the U.S. are free to make their own choices on diet and weight, McDonald’s has a stress on marketing towards target consumers that enjoy the sweetness. Unfortunately, particularly, this market is children. McDonald’s restaurants often feature cartoon figures, jungle gyms, and the signature “Happy Meal” with a toy. In developing countries, McDonald’s targets children with a special vigor because they are less accustomed to the tradition food. An article on McDonalds Marketing states “Children have become favorite targets for the fast-food companies, in part because they are less attached to traditional fare” (Witkowski, 2007) This carries some heavy negative consequences, childhood obesity, food addiction, and a loss of culture.
McDonald’s is also very strategic in the placement of their restaurants to attract the largest amount of their target consumers. The company was actually brought to court over the placement of one such restaurant in between residences and schools.(Fig. 3) The community, recognizing the problem of childhood obesity, developed a campaign against construction. David McDonald considered the fast food retailer to be a “threat to the health of the schoolchildren” (McDonalds, 2011) Interestingly, this article points out the link between the Ronald McDonald Foundation for child health and the target marketing. Hospitals have statues of Ronald McDonald on park benches for children to sit with; David McDonald asks the question “would we allow a pharmaceutical company the same right?” (McDonalds, 2011) The consequence of allowing this marketing and targeting towards children is clearly a reduction in community health meaning the action is unethical because it causes human suffering.
McDonald’s has also played a major role in the drastic increase in serving size of meals and the expectation of being “full”. When it was introduced in the 1950’s the product offering was severely limited and portions were much smaller. For example, a large soft drink in 1955 was 7 oz, by 1980 that was increased to 21 oz, in 1990 it was 32 oz, a drastic increase over just 35 years.(fig. 4) This increase clearly has negative health effects on society because there is so much more sugar (or corn syrup) being consumed at a time when the physical activity level of people was decreasing. A study done by Economic Inquiry found that “socially optimal restaurant meals are larger than average home-cooked meals, yet the choice to “super-size” alleviates the size discrepancy. Moreover, portion sizes at home and in restaurants increase with relative reductions in the marginal costs and/or relative increases in the fixed costs of meal preparation.” (Thomas Jeitschko, 2007) This means that people eat more of the food because its faster and easier, and at the same time the food makes consumers feel more full so they desire it more. The consequence is a cycle of laziness and unhealthiness, a limit on the freedom of patron without any contribution to the survival of our race.
There are positive outcomes as well as negative outcomes from McDonald’s corporate actions, but the negative aspects for consumers outweigh the positives quite drastically. This is because the spread of the fast food industry in general has had a largely negative consequence on both society and the environment. The environment is affected negatively by the increased food production, especially meat and poultry production. According to an article on business ethics, there are two possible points of view for this consequential understanding. First, there is the point of view of society, the best for all mankind even more specifically “promote the survival of our species” (Haines, 2014), then there is the individual perspective. (McClennen, 1999) From the societal perspective, McDonald’s the consequences of McDonald’s actions are ethically and morally wrong. From the individual perspective, however, the consequences of McDonald’s actions should not even be considered because it is the individual choice of the consumer to buy the product.
The case study for this paper found that the societal consequence of McDonald’s is a rise in obesity. (al., 2013) It found that as McDonald’s entered new countries, obesity developed and increased. This correlation defines the negative societal consequence that fast and unhealthy food can have for a population. This study was conducted over 44 countries and simply calculated the number of McDonald’s per million people and compared the increase to the increased rates of obesity. While the article recognizes that McDonald’s opening stores do not cause obesity, it is clear that the development of areas with McDonald’s as well as competitor’s leads to a reduction in human health due to an increasingly unhealthy diet. In fig. 5, you can see the “proportion of overweight individuals according to quartiles of the number of McDonald’s restaurants per million inhabitants in 44 countries.” (al., 2013) The trend shows clearly that McDonald’s development is morally wrong for the health of society due to the negative consequences.
Each person is an individual consumer. We all have our own choices in what we buy and what we eat. McDonald’s has a negative consequence for society and therefore their business is morally wrong, but it is the consumer that allows the company to flourish. As individuals it should not matter if McDonald’s has a negative consequence on society because we each make up society. For the individual who chooses to consume McDonald’s, the action has a negative consequence. Therefore from the individual perspective, the company is not doing anything morally wrong as long as the decision is made not to eat it. If everyone made that decision, then McDonald’s would not have any negative consequences.
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Fig 1: McDonald’s stock since IPO
Fig 2: McDonald’s market share and global presence compared to competitors
Fig. 3: The placement of a McDonald’s strategically between schools and residences
Fig 4: The increasing size of soft drinks
Fig 5: Correlation between McDonald’s operation and development in countries and the increase in obesity