The Ethical Dilemma of McDonald’s Company

McDonald’s currently faces a crisis, as parents, who objected to the free toys offered with the McDonald’s Happy Meal, sued the company. San Francisco passed a law banning free toys with food. In this paper, I will address how a corporation responds to a law, which challenges the organization’s current policies. I will also assess McDonald’s ethical dilemma of the balancing corporate concerns and community concerns, and I will argue they can still provide toys with their food if they can make their food healthier and the toys encourage children to eat healthy food.


The decision of which restaurant to go to and which meal to buy may be based on the quality of the food and the service. To children, free toys are definitely huge attraction that informs their choice in restaurants or meals. McDonald’s could be a great choice because the company claims they are working with the best suppliers, and provide the best quality food for their customers.

McDonald’s also provides free toys to children with the Happy Meals which are targeted to children.

McDonald’s started selling Happy Meals with free toys targeted at children in the 1970s. The Happy Meal is generally a hamburger, french fries, and sugar drink that is high in sodium, fat, and calories. However, to eat a Happy Meal makes children happy, but the food is not healthy to children. In addition, McDonald’s official website doesn’t offer specific information on the calories, sodium, sugar, and fat in each Happy Meal menu item.

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A group of consumers and nutrition advocates sued McDonald’s for using toys to market directly to young children in 2010. Next year, San Francisco issued a law banning free toys with food for children.

Ethical Dilemma

There is an ethical question to how McDonald’s responded to the law. That is, they followed the letter of the law versus the spirit of the law. In other words, the company changed the policy in order to avoid breaking the law. However, parents and scholars argue the company should change the policy not only to follow the law, but also meet the public demands. The dilemma is corporate’s benefit versus community concern. “Ethical organizations are accountable to their stakeholders in a responsible and responsive manner” (May, 2010, p.27).

The company has the responsibility to be productive in order to maintain or increase shareholders’ investment. The community is also one of the stakeholders in McDonald’s. The community will feel satisfied if the company makes more effort to care about children’s health. The community believes McDonald’s has the responsibility of preventing child obesity because children love to eat McDonald’s food. The degree of the food nutrition ‘s transparency also brings a ethical issue to McDonald’s.


Children and by extension their parents are the customers who buy Happy Meal. The toys in Happy Meals are leading children to make unhealthy dietary choices. High calories high sodium food and high sugar beverages, which can cause childhood obesity, are harmful children’s health. Moreover, overweight children often become obese adults. According to Stephen Gardner, CSPI (Center for Science in the Public Interest) litigation director, “McDonald’s use of toys undercuts parental authority ” (Watkins, 2011). Normally, parents choose food for their children because they want their children’s to eat nutritionally balanced food. But children will ask parents to buy Happy Meals because they want to get the toys.

If parents are not willing to buy, children may cry and yell. Parents’ authorities are undermined because they follow their children’s decision but do not make decisions for them. For the Owners and shareholders of McDonald’s, selling Happy Meals brings a lot of money to McDonald’s. It might be risky to remove the toys in the Happy Meal because the revenue might decrease. As primary task of a business is to maintain or increase a company’s profit, in this case, the company’s profit might be more important than customers if customers will buy the product anyway.

What McDonald’s Did

McDonald’s announced that the toys are no longer free. The McDonald’s now charges 10 cents for toys, and they donate 10 cents to the Ronald McDonald House. Also, McDonald’s downsized the french fries portion, provided apple slices, and removed the popular caramel dipping sauce in the happy meal. McDonald’s changes didn’t influence children positively. First, Charging 10 cents won’t make the toys being less of incentive to buy unhealthy food. Children are still attracted to eat unhealthy food witch McDonald’s sells. Second, hamburger, french fries are still high in salt, fat, and sugar drinks are too sweet. McDonald’s downsized the potion and gave options of healthy food in Happy Meal’s menu just to follow the law. Scott Rodrick, McDonald’s Owner, explains how they are just giving the customers what they want, “They wanted us to provide choice on the menu, they wanted us to follow the letter of the law” (McDonald’s finding, 2011).

Also, “[McDonald’s] claims that its meals are “right-sized for kids,” and that it offers food choices that are healthy. The company changed the public to focus on the portion of food from the nutrition. The consumers and nutrition advocates didn’t want the company just to follow the letter of the law. Those changes that McDonald’s made were small and useless. They wanted the company to focus on the nutrition of food. Sara Deon, spokeswoman for Corporate Accountability International said, “McDonald’s has followed the letter of the law but not the spirit. They’ve taken a cynical approach to the issue of the improving to healthfulness of its kids’ meals” (McLoophole? San Francisco, 2011).

What Should McDonald’s Have Done

“ Accountable organizations view legal and industry compliance as important but have minimum expectation. Rather they accept direct responsibility for any actions that negatively affect their stakeholder, and they seek to maximize their positive contributions to those stakeholders” (May, 2010, P.27) The fairest solution is following the spirit of the law which is leading children eat healthy food. There are three steps of the solution. First, lessen salt, sodium, fat and sugar of the food in Happy Meal. Additionally, giving toys not only happy image, but also healthy image. Third, collecting the 10 cents to hold healthy food campaigns. McDonald’s should not only give the options of healthy food like fruit and milk, but also decrease the salt and sugar in food and beverages. If they did so, parents would not worry that they buy unhealthy food for their children. People who have declined to eat at McDonald’s food may choose to eat McDonald’s because they know they can now eat healthy food.

Additionally, the company can offer specific information on the calories, sodium, sugar, and fat in each Happy Meal menu item. Even though to adjust the food may costly, the adjustment could be productive because to do so could bring more and more customers. Children will still want to eat Happy Meal because of the toys whether or not they are free. However, the toy is not totally at fault. The initial idea of toys is good and positive. Bob Bernstein, who helped create the McDonald’s toys, said, “[the toy is] to make a child happy and to not cost Mom any additional money “(Happy Meal, 2010). However, the toys are leading children to eat unhealthy food, so the toys can lead children to eat healthy food as well.

Once McDonald’s adjusts the menu and gives more options of healthy food, and then the toys can be used to encourage children to eat healthy food. Therefore, the toys can be related to healthy food instead of unhealthy food. McDonald’s can collect 10cents to create healthy food campaigns. McDonald’s can have campaigns to advocate the importance of eating healthy food and the seriousness of childhood obesity. ” McDonald’s can align with advocates like Jamie Oliver to help develop nutritious, fun, tasty eating options. Innovation is generally how we break patterns of things that aren’t working”(O’Brien, 2011) McDonald’s is the world’s leading fast food chain. The company’s change can make a great positive impact toward upon fast food chains.


To maintain its position as the world’s leading fast food chain, I believe McDonald’s will have to deal with the crisis that was caused when the changes the company made did not meet the public demand. In the long term, McDonald’s can build a new image which can that show fast food is another choice of healthy food. Then the Happy Meal will not only makes children happy, but also encourage them to eat healthy food. The company will fail to keep customers loyalty if it won’t listen to the customers carefully. The customers bring benefit to McDonald’s. Therefore, McDonald’s can maintain position as the world’s leading fast food chain If they make the customers happy and provide healthy food.


  1. May, S. (2011). Ethical Dilemmas in the Financial Industry. Case Studies in Organizational Communication Ethical Perspectives and Practices. 2nd ed. Sage Publications, Inc
  2. Watkins. B. (2011, June 24). McDonald’s Being Sued Over Toys Contributing to Childhood Obesity, HUFFPOST BLACKVOICE, Retrieved from
  3. McLoophole? San Francisco McDonald’s find way around Happy Meal toy ban. (2011, November 30). Mail Online, Retrieved from
  4. McDonald’s finding a way around not allowing to give free toys with kids meals. (Dec 2, 2011)., Retrieved from
  5. McFarlin, R. (2011) San Francisco Puts Ban on McDonald’s Happy Meal Toys?, Retrieved from

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The Ethical Dilemma of McDonald’s Company. (2016, Dec 03). Retrieved from

The Ethical Dilemma of McDonald’s Company
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