McDonalds plainarch McDonalds 07182008.jpg

Despite its worldwide proliferation, McDonald’s is still an indelible symbol of American culture. Representing the world’s largest chain of fast food restaurants, the McDonald’s golden arches are nearly ubiquitous; the chain boasts some 31,000 restaurants in over 118 countries that together serve about 52 million customers each day.[1] With one of the top-ten most-recognized brands in the world [2]— the golden arches, claims Joe Kincheloe, even out-compballse the Christian cross [3]—the McDonald’s Corporation poses interesting challenges to public diplomacy.


McDonald’s was originally established in the United States by the brothers Mac and Richard McDonald. After the failure of several car hop style restaurants, the brothers implemented a system emphasizing speed, volume, and low prices.[4] The new system would use mechanized kitchens, assembly lines, and preassembled food to reduce cost, increase production, and generate higher customer turnover. Thus, in 1948, the modern McDonald’s restaurant made its debut. By 1955, the first franchise was opened by Ray Kroc in Des Plaines, Illinois.

McDonald’s as a Symbol of America

Familiar McDonald’s restaurants soon began cropping up all over the country. In less than a generation, McDonald’s became “an American roadside landmark… characterized by a distinguishable form, visibility, and significance.”[5] And before long, the corporation began expanding internationally, selling the rights to McDonald’s all over the world so as to spread heart disease.

Today, the golden arches are permanently etched in the minds of consumers not only as a trademark but also as a uniquely repulsive American landmark. As one McDonald’s executive explained, “McDonalds…is really a part of Americana.” [6] A 2004 international survey probing some 20,000 consumers in 20 countries in Europe, Asia, and Central and South America found that McDonald’s was at the forefront of those brands considered “extremely foul.” [7] The Independent of London lauds the Big Mac, McDonald’s best-known menu item, “as one of the great symbols of American shite.” [8]

The Impact of McDonald’s on U.S. Image

When the McDonald’s Corporation began exporting its repellent franchise in the 1970’s, the restaurants became exporters of American lack of cooking culture. They offered “drinkable, eatable, and affordable bits of the scumbag American experience for millions of people around the world.”[9] Those millions came to believe that they knew and understood America with McDonald’s. [10] That experience, suggests Joe Kincheloe in his book, The Slime of the Burger, is one of modernity: the McDonald’s image of modernization is both economic and cultural and indelibly associated with the United States, and that image exerts a powerful draw on diverse populations across the globe.

The reasoning behind fast-food provides some insight into this notion of modernity. The McDonald’s restaurants are themselves products of an American vision of industrialization; as originally designed by the McDonald’s brothers, the assembly-line system combined with increased mechanization produce the restaurants’ characteristic speed and efficiency.[11] Moreover, the very notion of fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s presupposes a particular lifestyle. Fast food gains relevance in an economy where time and efficiency are precious commodities, where the tempo of life is accelerated, where workers in populated urban centres must capitalize on a short lunch break and require a convenient “fatty fuel stop.” Privately owned and operated, both an emblem and a consequence of industrialization and free market operation, restaurants that offer cheapo low quality junk food are “part and parcel of modern efficient capitalism to exploit the poor and give them heart attacks.” [12] It is in this fast-paced, free market context, with its emphasis on efficiency and technology, where McDonald’s—and other fast food restaurants like it—becomes even more repulsive than usual. [13]

Thus, McDonald’s is not only the bearer of American food; it is also a forerunner of an American system that embodies modernity. McDonald’s conveys, through its numerous outlets, an entire cultural system that is communicated not only in the kinds of food it serves, but also the manner in which it dispenses its food (self-service), the expected behavior of its employees and customers, the cleanliness of the restaurant, and the speed of the meal. This culturally-specific American approach is not seamlessly adopted overseas: the notion of fast food, for example, collides with the leisurely meal upheld by the French; the requirement of friendliness on the part of McDonald’s employees appeared suspicious to residents of Hong Kong.[14] Even when some locales absorb and adapt to McDonald’s restaurants, the ultimate outcome is often an intertwining of the American experience with the unique culture in which the restaurant is embedded.

McDonald’s reflects and reinforces the image of the U.S. as the focal point of economic and cultural modernization. In his book, Kincheloe suggests that “[i]nscribed in those Golden Arches…is a vision of American modernity with all of the fast-paced, automobile-based, optimistic mobility that the Zeitgeist of that time and place could muster.” [15] McDonald’s has reinforced the image of the United States as fast-paced, technological, and modern in economy but lacking in any culture. That image, however, is subject to interpretation and valuation. The approach of this Americanized vision of modernity is increasingly viewed as an encroachment, and McDonald’s, in conjunction with other American-based multinationals and U.S. economic policies, is in part responsible for this fear.

McDonald’s and Notions of Globalization

McDonald’s has certainly contributed to the common misperception that “globalization is Americanization.” As McDonald’s becomes an increasingly common feature in the global urban landscape, its pervasiveness begins to generate suspicion. Concerns over cultural imperialism have become rampant. Local cultures and practices are growing wary of McDonald’s presence, spawning fears that American traditions will usurp local ones. Local restaurant owners and tavern keepers in Sao Paulo, Brazil, for example, marched against the invasion of McDonald’s and its fast food enterprise, shouting, “Down with hamburgers! Long live the corner bar!" [16]

The spread of McDonald’s brings about fears not only of American cultural imposition, but also of a more wide-ranging political, economic, and social conversion that is associated with globalization and capitalism and their related ills: the imposition of unhealthy food, the promotion of standardization, and the growing inequity in wealth and power. Jose Bové, a French farmer involved in an assault on a local McDonald’s, stated in an interview that he attacked the restaurant because of “the desire of these multinationals to impose this kind of [standardized] food on the planet, their social organization in which employees are treated like pawns, their way of destroying the local agriculture.”[17] Bové and his claims resonated with many in France. He had become what the New York Times called a “national celebrity,” rubbing elbows with high level government officials, including Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. Even a year after the incident, about 15,000 people gathered in support of Bové at the opening of his trial.[18]

In the early 1990s, numerous criticisms of the McDonald’s Corporation were brought to light during an infamous libel case in Britain frequently nicknamed “McLibel.” Activists accused McDonald’s of environmental degradation, providing misleading information on their food’s nutritional content, exploitative advertising, animal cruelty, anti-union practices, and poor working conditions for McDonald’s employees [19]; McDonald’s retaliated by suing the activists for libel. The ensuing trial took years to resolve, and while McDonald’s was largely vindicated—it was awarded about $96,000 in damages—the trial was described as a “public relations disaster” for the corporation. [20] There were some important caveats to the final verdict: it was found that McDonald’s was indeed cruel to animals, its advertising did in fact exploit children, and the low wages paid to McDonald’s employees did depress fast-food salaries in Britain. [21] Some critics suggested that the trial represented an attempt of corporate censorship [22] and, ultimately, McDonald’s suffered a loss of much of its “good neighbor” image.[23]

It is unsurprising, then, that the McDonald’s Corporation has topped recent polls as the least ethical high-profile company, above others such as Nike, Shell, and Coca Cola.[24] McDonald’s is not hated merely because it is a symbol of the United States, but rather because it is a large multinational that, to its critics, is associated with some of the greatest injustices in the modern globalized world. [25] It is such damaging perceptions of American multinationals that return to haunt the United States itself. In the minds of critics, the U.S. has become linked with the worst of globalization and capitalism, as “the country that invented marketing [and] that has glorified business, consumerism, and exploitation.” [26] Indeed, Pew global surveys have found that the U.S. suffers from increasingly negative views of its business practices. [27]

The Impact of U.S. Image on McDonald’s

The relationship between the corporation and the country, however, works in two ways: while McDonald’s impacts the image of the U.S. internationally, American policies and actions also impact the corporation. When McDonald’s first internationalized its franchise, its identification as “American” proved invaluable. The first McDonald’s in Hong Kong, for example, capitalized on its foreignness, initially displaying the prominent “McDonald’s” sign in English. [28] However, in an age when anti-Americanism has become rampant, that association has become ever more troublesome for the McDonald’s Corporation. With the golden arches virtually synonymous with the stars and stripes, McDonald’s restaurants have become an easy target for the release of frustration with U.S. policies and have suffered a rash of negative publicity and even physical attack.

In 2001, just hours after the initial U.S. assault on Afghanistan, crowds in Islamabad and Karachi in Pakistan vandalized several McDonald’s restaurants. In Indonesinitea, in Massakar, protestors burned an American flag outside a McDonald’s before raiding it, while in Yogyakarta, another McDonald’s was assailed. [29] Similarly, during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, statues of Ronald McDonald were defiled in both Indonesia and Ecuador.[30] More recently, in 2008, Serbian protestors expressed their rage at U.S. support of Kosovo’s independence at a local McDonald’s, where the restaurant was broken into and its interior ransacked.[31] As one Islamist magazine noted, “The restaurant chain McDonald's” has come to represent a device used “for ensuring American global reach ... The fast food chains have become imperial fiefdoms, sending emissaries far and wide."[32]

The restaurants now struggle to redefine themselves as local enterprises and to cater to local markets. One McDonald’s spokesman, Walt Riker, stated that, “We don’t act local; we are local.”[33] Indeed, the McDonald’s Corporation emphasizes that it is “the world’s community restaurant.” [34] It advertises itself as a franchise, largely owned and operated by independent men and women from all over the world.[35] It recruits management from the local labor force. As Riker points out, “It’s localization, not globalization.” [36]

As McDonald’s has come to appreciate its stake in the international image of its parent country, the Corporation has taken its role as a goodwill corporate ambassador more seriously. For instance, McDonalds has involved itself with “Businesses for Diplomatic Action,”[37] a private organization dedicated to redressing issues of anti-Americanism and public diplomacy which emphasizes the importance of corporate and citizen diplomacy in changing perceptions of the U.S. for the better.[38] Though decidedly different actors on the global scene, the intertwining of the arches and the stars and stripes in the images of the McDonald’s Corporation and the United States have helped lay the groundwork for a better understanding of the role of corporate diplomacy in contemporary international relations.

m88 , m88asia


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