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McDonald’s Company: Business Ethics Case

Advertizing and Manipulation

Advertizing can be defined as a non-personal, open form of marketing communication having the primary purpose to draw public attention to particular goods, services or ideas. Advertizing can use various mass media to communicate its message. The initial goal of advertizing is to reach the target consumer, thereby building the brand and generating profit.1

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There is a widespread opinion that advertizing negatively influences consumer behavior. Indeed, despite the fact that the practice is not inherently bad, it still uses numerous manipulative tactics to persuade the potential customer into purchasing products he/she never planned to buy. There are several most widespread advertizing techniques used for hidden manipulation:

  1. Anthropomorphism. It is typical of many ads to give human qualities to animals or inanimate objects to make the viewer associate himself/herself with them. Although this may pass unnoticed, the perception of the information is changed dramatically due to emotional closeness.
  2. Social approval. Since producers realize how much significance is attached to feedback, they often use social approval as a part of their ads. Despite the fact that the legitimacy of their claims is questionable, many consumers believe that the product is indeed preferred by the majority of the population.
  3. Using resistance to their benefit. Since customers do not like to be told what to do, a lot of advertisers have learned to use their unwillingness against them, simply by being “open” about their weak points.
  4. Sex appeal. This technique is one of the most powerful ways of manipulation since it allows creating positive associations between the product and the customer’s personal sexuality.
  5. Misleading images. Companies use numerous ways of showing their products in the most attractive manner, using artificial means (coloring, sprays, Photoshop, etc.).2

Thus, manipulation in advertizing basically implies that one entity (the product manufacturer) influences another entity (the customer) in order to make the latter opt for involuntary actions in relation to the product advertized.3 There is one more way of manipulation connected with offering bonuses for buying a particular type or amount of product. This is what McDonald’s does with its Happy Meal, which is an evident incentive to attract children and make them return to collect all the toys from the set. The restaurant therefore calls for making choices based exclusively on the first emotional response of both children and parents. However, there are a lot of ethical concerns connected with this evidently successful market strategy.

Consequentialism Perspective

If one assesses the situation using the marketing perspective, there is nothing wrong in the company’s actions since it strictly adheres to the rules of advertizing. Namely, it does not directly address children in its ads, which is an unlawful practice. Formally, it is their parents who make a decision to visit the restaurant and buy a Happy Meal. Moreover, McDonald’s provides exhaustive information about the amount of nutrients in every product. Thus, the company washes its hands of any accusations in failing to perform its obligations to customers.

Yet, the situation becomes quite different being analyzed from the point of view of consequentialism. This philosophical outlook evaluates actions judging by the consequences they produce: If the action is moral, it leads to the biggest possible sum of utility for all the parties involved.4 Thus, in order to understand whether the company’s advertizing activities aimed at attracting children are ethical, it is required to investigate what short- and long-terms consequences they bring about.

First and foremost, it must be mentioned that McDonald’s always makes emphasis on its role as a community player, stating that the purpose of the company is not simply to sell food but to act as a positive force by doing its best to the population. In fact, opinion polls reveal that a Happy Meal indeed makes children and their parents “happy”. The scheme is not very intricate: Children receive toys they want while parents kill two birds with one stone (the child gets both food and entertainment for the same price). This allows stating that short-term consequences are positive for all the stakeholders.

As far as long-term results are concerned, the situation is far from being that rosy. McDonald’s continues to be among the top companies aggravating the problem of obesity (including childhood obesity) all over the country. Watching fast food ads, children develop a habit of accepting and approving of such brands. McDonald’s attracts young viewers by offering not only a tasty meal but also a free toy.

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Due to this irresistible temptation of the product, children begin to develop an unhealthy lifestyle (coupled with inadequate consumer behaviors), which gradually makes them overweight. In the long run, their excessive body mass results in the appearance of a number of severe diseases including arthritis, fatty liver, heart failure, gall bladder disease, stroke, and many other life-threatening conditions.5

Therefore, their quality of life significantly deteriorates in all aspects including psychological ones since their self-confidence suffers the effects of a negative body image. In schools, obese children are likely to be subjected to bullying. Since the image of a “happy” place sooths them for a short period of time, they return to McDonald’s to forget about their problems. This becomes an endless circle.


Thus, the analysis of long-term results of attracting children to fast food restaurants reveals that McDonald’s marketing can hardly be called ethical from the consequentialism perspective. Despite its self-positioning as a community player, the firm does not seem to care about its young customers. To save its reputation, the company must develop strategies promoting a healthy lifestyle.

The only recommendation for McDonald’s as per its advertizing campaign aimed at children is to shift the focus of attention to healthy options. Since the majority of children love McDonald’s in general and Happy Meals in particular, they will listen to the appeal to make healthier choices. Another possible (and more radical) solution would be to change the content of Happy Meals. They could include carrot sticks, wraps, juice, tea or any other healthy foods, snacks, and beverages instead of hamburgers, French fries and Coke.


Damian Grace, Stephen Cohen, and William R. Holmes, eds. Business Ethics: Canadian Edition. Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Poti, Jennifer M., Kiyah J. Duffey, and Barry M. Popkin. “The Association of Fast Food Consumption with Poor Dietary Outcomes and Obesity Among Children: Is It the Fast Food or the Remainder of the Diet?” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 99, no. 1 (2014): 162-171.

Sheehan, Kim Bartel. Controversies in Contemporary Advertising. Thousand Oaks Sage Publications, 2013.

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  1. Kim Bartel Sheehan, Controversies in Contemporary Advertising (Thousand Oaks Sage Publications, 2013), 3.
  2. Ibid., 48.
  3. Ibid., 26.
  4. Grace Damian, Stephen Cohen and William R. Holmes, eds., Business Ethics: Canadian Edition (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2014), 14.
  5. Jennifer M. Poti, Kiyah J. Duffey and Barry M. Popkin, “The Association of Fast Food Consumption with Poor Dietary Outcomes and Obesity Among Children: Is It the Fast Food or the Remainder of the Diet?” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 99, no. 1 (2014): 163.

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