PHL/323 Ethics Management Current Ethical Issue Business Paper (select a recent article -- back 1 year) • Research information issue deals business ethics a newspaper, magazine, journal, TV, Internet.
Current ethical issue in business: Ethics of marketing junk food
There are many products which are marketed to the American public which are not 'healthy' such as cigarettes and spirits. However, the issue of food marketing is a more nebulous one, ethically speaking. Unlike nicotine and alcohol, human beings need food to survive. But certain types of food have been identified by many nutritionists as being uniquely deleterious to human health, aka 'junk food.' McDonald's has drawn particular ire, in part because of its marketing to children, according to the article "Marketing to children: Accepting responsibility," recently published in Business Ethics. McDonald's is an American icon, yet it also sells some of the unhealthiest food in the country. McDonald's has had to navigate the treacherous waters of promoting its core products and responding to consumer's and legislator's concerns about the degree to which it is contributing to the obesity epidemic in America.
The Happy Meal, McDonald's meal that is specifically designed to attract children, exemplifies this conflict. Children often drive much of the real foot traffic into fast food restaurants, as they 'nag' parents about wanting to eat in a place advertised by their favorite characters with toys and kid-friendly food. But much of the food in a Happy Meal is extremely unhealthy. "San Francisco is one of the cities that have voted to ban selling toys with fast food for children that exceed certain levels of salt, fat, calories and sugar. McDonald's was accused of deceptive marketing practices to children over the lure of toys as an inducement to buy Happy Meals" (O'Brien 2011).
On one hand, McDonald's has a legal right to market its product. And, despite all of the nutritional wisdom which advises them to the contrary, people still want to eat fast food, and usually when they enter a McDonald's they want a burger, not a salad. McDonald's has tried to answer such claims by offering more healthy meal alternatives to consumers, but it has still been subject to intense ethical criticism because of the health implications of eating the foods that are the primary drivers of its profits. Furthermore, there are contentions that children do not have the cognitive resources at a young age to distinguish between information and advertising, making them particularly vulnerable to an assault from McDonald's advertising. "In February 2011, in anticipation of McDonald's shareholder meeting, Corporate Accountability International launched a campaign to fire Ronald McDonald, the clown mascot for the last nearly 50 years, and encourage headquarters to stop marketing to children by delivering petitions to individual restaurants. They also asked the chain to address directly the relationship of fast food to obesity" (O'Brien 2011).
Including apple slices in its Happy Meals will not silence critics. But nor will a fundamental shift in its product line satisfy all of the firm's obligations. According to classical conceptions of business ethics, a business' sole responsibility is to make a profit for its shareholders. McDonald's has found that marketing to children is an extremely effective way to generate revenue, despite consumers' worries about their waistlines and their children's diets. However, other conceptions of firm ethics stress that stakeholders are not limited to shareholders, and the firm has a responsibility to the community, including consumers and the public at large.
The advantage of soliciting young consumers, besides parents' desperation to please their children, is that they will be 'patrons for life,' provided they establish their eating habits and preference for McDonald's early on. Fast food has been reputed to have an addictive quality, although this claim has not yet been proven. "Obesity is characterized by resistance to insulin, leptin and other hormonal signals that would normally control appetite and limit reward. Neuroimaging studies in obese subjects provide evidence of altered reward and tolerance. Once obese, many individuals meet criteria for psychological dependence...fast food advertisements, restaurants and menus all provide environmental cues that may trigger addictive overeating" (Gaber & Lustig 2001). Young children are literally being 'hooked' on an addictive product that could contribute to the likelihood of their becoming obese later in life. "They don't understand persuasive intent until they are eight years old; and the brain's capacity for judgment isn't developed until their 20s which makes them very vulnerable as marketing targets" (O'Brien 2011).
Obesity can have high costs for society, as well as for the individual, physically and psychologically and even economically in terms of lost productivity. The 'good' generated by McDonald's endeavors such as the Ronald McDonald House is dwarfed by the damage done by fast food addiction. For McDonald's to be an effective marketer it must 'feed' the addiction of its customers; for McDonald's to act in a socially responsible fashion, it must encourage consumers to eat less and to eat more healthfully, which means effectively reducing its sales.
To resolve this conundrum, McDonald's has tried to make its healthier options more palatable. "McDonald's has ditched its super-sized fries and sodas, and stopped using ammonia-treated beef, known to many as 'pink slime'…cut levels of sodium by 11%, and announced that it would offer apples and smaller fries in its Happy Meals. They've also introduced other healthy items like the Fruit and Maple Oatmeal which offers at least two servings of whole grains" (Brown-Adefope 2011). There are no more 'super-sized meals' and the sizes of its sodas have shrunk. But few people come to McDonald's specifically for oatmeal, when they can very easily and more cheaply make it at home, or even use instant oatmeal at work.
Previous attempts to make McDonald's food more successful have not been particularly effective from a marketing standpoint. Its first 'diet' burger, the McLean, was a dismal failure (Brown-Adefope 2011) Consumers complained when it changed the fat in its French fries to make the spuds less heart-unhealthy. They also complained when the fast food giant stopped frying its apple pies. Even within the company there has been a war between executives who wish to improve the company's public relations image, which they see as vitally important to its future success, and the desire by some to stick to what has made the company great. Consumers may say they want healthier foods and calorie counts on the menus, but in actual practice, their buying behaviors suggest they desire otherwise.
McDonald's must find a way to balance its marketing with its social responsibility in a manner that does not seems schizophrenic, as it still creates items like the Cheddar Bacon Onion Angus Third Pounder with 41 grams of fat, even while it claims to care about consumer health (O'Brien 2011). One possible idea might be marketing on value, rather than upon size -- offering customers standard-sized burgers at low cost on its popular 'Dollar Menu' which have more petite calorie counts and less decadent burgers.
A second option to answer ethical concerns is to be more rigorous about policing its supply chain, in terms of the sourcing of its food. One of McDonald's smaller, regional competitors, In-And-Out burger, has made its ethical approach a cornerstone of marketing its core product of burgers. Unlike McDonald's, In-And-Out has not diversified its menu to include less popular healthy options. Rather, it has used its specific focus upon fast food to generate a higher-quality product that is less ethically troubling for consumers. "In-N-Out prides itself on providing fast food that isn't just delicious, but also fresh and locally-sourced" (Marati 2012). According to the chain: "We pay a premium to purchase fresh, high-quality beef chucks. We individually inspect every single chuck we receive to make sure that it meets our standards. Then our highly skilled, in-house butchers remove the bones. We grind…