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How Americans' Views of McDonald's Changed Over the Years

Researchers have long documented problems with McDonald's, but it wasn't until they began showing how the restaurants aimed at children and made people overweight that the American public paid attention.
(Photo: SSokolov/Shutterstock)

(Photo: SSokolov/Shutterstock)

One morning, you wake up, turn to your partner, and it's like you don't even know how they feel about you anymore.

After decades of enormous growth, McDonald's has been on the decline recently, with same-store sales falling over the past five years, as the New York Times reported recently. America's tastes have changed, a fact pointed out by many retail journalists. People are more concerned about wholesome, quality ingredients, and are therefore more likely to visit healthier-seeming chains, such as Chipotle.

As a look at the academic literature shows, this change has been a long time coming. Researchers have been bringing up worries about the influence of McDonald's on business, culture, and health for at least 20 years. But it wasn't until the last decade or so that the critiques really began to hit home, paving the way for Americans' rejection of the Golden Arches.

Below, an overview of the research over the years:


At this time, McDonald's is still fairly new, so the scholarship is simple, focusing on the company's novel business structure—franchising. One paper, published in 1963, simply clarifies what franchising is.


In the 1970s, researchers begin realizing how large of an influence McDonald's was having on American society. A 1978 issue of the Journal of American Culture features papers examining McDonald's "interior décor," a comparison of McDonald's and Disney's influences on pop culture, and the "psychology of fast food happiness."

These papers are not especially critical, but serve as a precursor for the critiques that would emerge, 20 years later, about the ill effects of McDonald's-influenced culture.


How is McDonald's growing so fast? Social science researchers try to find answers through papers with thrilling-sounding names like "McDonald's: A Winner Through Logistics."


McDonald's has operated restaurants internationally since the 1970s, but in the 1990s, there's an explosion of literature about local resistance to McDonald's franchises. As the book Golden Arches East: McDonald's in East Asia, published in 1997, explains:

European and American intellectuals who have long equated McDonald's and its rivals in the fast food industry as agents of cultural imperialism—a new form of exploitation that results from the export of popular culture from the United States, Japan, and Europe to other parts of the world.

By this time, activists with British environmentalist collective London Greenpeace have long accused McDonald's of a litany of unseemly practices, ranging from animal cruelty to unfairly advertising to children to starving farmers in developing countries. McDonald's responded with massive libel lawsuits, forcing critics to apologize, as the book No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies documents. However, in the mid-1990s, two "relatively penniless" activists decided to fight back, creating a David vs. Goliath case that drew lots of negative attention to the the fast food behemoth.

Americans might not have been paying attention as much as the British were, however. Golden Arches East argues that, despite the so-called "McLibel case," "McDonald's enjoys a special, perhaps even privileged relationship with U.S. media—a tribute to the company's virtuosity in public relations. Positive articles far outweigh negative or even neutral ones." That would soon change.


Now the critiques are coming on fast, and they're personal. Studies show that fast-food ads make kids eat more unhealthfully. McDonald's is a top offender, with the average American child watching more than 250 Micky D's ads a year. Researchers also document the prevalence of McDonald's and other fast food chains in poorer neighborhoods, associating their presence with those communities' higher rates of obesity and heart disease. This isn't all happening in the academic world, either. Media outlets, including Pacific Standard, report on these studies, spreading them beyond researchers' labs.

In the past, getting the Everyman to stop eating at McDonald's would have required getting him or her worried about relatively distant concerns, like the environment, or farmers' rights. Now the studies are saying McDonald's is making you fat, and it's coming for your children. With such shifts in research and public perception, it's no wonder the company is undergoing a major upheaval.