A Valentine to Globalization

It’s tough to be a corporate America icon these days.  Consider Coca-Cola and McDonald's. 

When was the last time you saw coverage of an overseas protest where a McDonald's didn’t get ransacked?  When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez decided to crack down on “private interests” last month, he chose to take over Coca-Cola bottling plants.  Moments after American planes began bombing Afghanistan in 2001, protesters in Pakistan and Indonesia attacked local McDonald's franchises -- and Coca-Cola billboards.

Coke and McDonald's not only get accused of propagating an encroaching American culture, their names have become synonymous with it.  Free trade opponents have long decried the “Coca-Colafication” of local cultures.  Ten years ago, in a seminal piece for the Atlantic Monthly that later became a book, Benjamin R. Barber coined the phrase “McWorld,” a moniker still used to describe Big Mac imperialism. Sure, Johnny-come-latelies like the Gap and Starbucks take some heat too.  But when you want to throw stones at the representatives of global corporate hegemony, Coke and McDonald's still seem the likeliest targets.

The two companies share more than just iconoclastic branding and third-world backlash.  Both are likely targets in the approaching wave of obesity lawsuits -- against “Big Soda” and “Big Grease.”  Both are accused of not giving back to their respective communities (despite reams of evidence to the contrary). And both are said to embody that evilest and basest of capitalist principles -- “caring only about profits.”

So maybe it’s time to take a look at some of the good these two giants do.

The truth about McDonald's and Coke is that each company realizes it needs to take steps to become a full part of the communities it wants to serve, if for no other reason than self-interest.

Peruse the official Web sites of McDonald's franchises around the world and you’ll find that nearly all of them are locally owned, and most buy at least half their supplies from local growers.

In Egypt, for example, you can order a McFelafel.  In Japan, a burger made of seaweed.  In Taiwan, kids meals are served in reusable metal containers, keeping with local custom.  In India, you won’t find beef anywhere on the menu (but you can order a “Maharaja Mac”).  In France, you might find rabbit.  In Germany, the menu includes beer.

That’s not to say McDonald’s hasn’t brought some Western customs to the far corners of the globe. 

In the book Golden Arches East, edited by James L. Watson, McDonald's stores are credited with introducing the concept of queued lines (as opposed to rushing the counter) in Korea.  In Hong Kong, public bathrooms were notoriously dirty and unsanitary.  McDonald's clean, sterile facilities forced competing restaurants in the city to clean up their acts.  The company also introduced new management, distribution and labor deployment techniques that allowed existing restaurant chains in Hong Kong to flourish.

Despite what you might deduce from anti-globalization protests, these efforts have largely ingratiated McDonald's into their communities. 

In an interview with the New York Times, Dr. Watson said that the idea that American companies are resented the world over is exaggerated.  Rather, he said, Ronald McDonald’s enemies are more an intelligentsia who “inflate the significance of McDonald's,” even as middle-class customers continue to relish it. 

Dayton Business Journal columnist Kristen Wicker recently wrote about her trip to a Cairo McDonald's.  The new franchise, she wrote, was the talk of the community.  She described the store as “shiny and bright,” with “lines for food that were long and thick.”  Hardly the sign of post-Sept. 11 anti-Americanism.

But perhaps a recent endeavor by Coca-Cola better exemplifies how globalization and the profit motive improves local communities.

Long before President Bush announced his plan in the State of the Union, Coca-Cola undertook a massive campaign to battle one of the most devastating crises on the planet -- the AIDS epidemic in Africa.  But what’s unique about Coke’s plan is not that the company is investing huge amounts of money in the continent (it is -- about $600 million in the last five years, $40 million of that to philanthropy, against $620 million in annual revenues), but that Coke is using its very omnipresence on the continent -- what anti-globalization critics most loathe -- to implement the program.

Coke will use its supply routes, its bottling plants and its renown marketing talent to undertake a massive AIDS education and awareness program.  Plants, trucks and employees will be utilized to deliver antiretroviral drugs, condoms and educational literature. 

The company has already begun employing the cultural knowledge of its local plants to tailor the AIDS program to the needs of individual countries.  Customized plans have already been launched in Kenya, Ethiopia, Morocco, Nigeria, Swaziland, Tanzania, Tunisia and Zambia, according to Coca-Cola Africa spokesman Robert Lindsay. 

Coke is also offering comprehensive AIDS treatment to all of its employees, their families and their children.  So far, 80 percent of the company’s bottlers have signed up. Lindsay says he expects that number to be at 100 percent by the end of March.

I don’t doubt for a minute that the efforts of McDonald's and Coca-Cola to better serve the communities where they do business are motivated by profit.  No doubt Coke sees a continent crippled with the scourge of AIDS as a threat to its half-billion dollars in annual business there.  And no doubt McDonald's understands that buying from local farmers and producers not only cuts down on shipping costs, but also creates wealth in those communities, thereby enabling more people to afford to eat at McDonald's.

But that’s precisely the point.  The profit motive encourages these businesses to contribute to the overall well being of the communities they serve.  And though all we see on television are the stone throwers and rabble rousers, for the most part, these communities live comfortably, ably and happily with their own little slices of McWorld.

Radley Balko is a writer living in Arlington, Va. He also maintains a weblog at www.theagitator.com.

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