Happy Meals, World Cup tie-ins and Extra Value Combos are the main messages on walking into any of McDonald’s 32,000 restaurants worldwide. However, all manner of controversies – everything from the obesity crisis and “supersize me” debate, through to allegations of litter creation, employee mistreatment and factory farming – have dogged the golden arches over the decades.
But perhaps none of these controversies has been more damaging than the notorious McLibel case of the 1990s – dubbed by the UK’s Channel 4 news as “the most expensive and disastrous public relations exercise ever mounted by a multinational company”. It is a tale of David and Goliath, an unusual legal climate, Pyrrhic victory and unintended consequences.
The case involves Helen Steel and Dave Morris – the so-called McLibel Two – both activists involved with a campaigning collective known as London Greenpeace (no relation to Greenpeace International) in the 1980s.
Steel and Morris were taken to court by the burger chain for their role in publishing a fact sheet – What’s Wrong With McDonald’s? – in 1986 that levelled a wide range of allegations against the company. It included claims of promoting unhealthy food, animal cruelty, anti-union activity, bad working conditions and contributing to starvation in the developing world.
Most disturbing of all to McDonald’s was the claim that the company’s beef was implicated in loss of tropical rainforest.
However, as Matt Haig argues in his 2003 book Brand Failures: The Truth About the 100 Biggest Branding Mistakes of All Time, “very few people would now know about the contents of that pamphlet if McDonald’s hadn’t taken the matter to court”.
Through the 1980s, allegations of the company’s complicity in rainforest destruction were aired by the BBC2 Nature programme, as well as appearing in articles in the Independent newspaper’s magazine and in the Sunday Correspondent.
In all of these cases (and others), the company’s response was to have its law firm send a demand for an apology and retraction of the allegations, or face the threat of a defamation lawsuit under Britain’s famously strict libel laws, which require defendants to prove the truth of their allegations. In the cases of Channel 4, the BBC and many others, the recipients of the legal threats gave in to McDonald’s demands, rather than face the expense and uncertainty of prevailing on a libel case in a British court.
Also caught up in the controversy were John Elkington and Julia Hailes, co-founders of London-based consultants SustainAbility. In 1987 Elkington and Hailes co-authored The Green Consumer Guide, the bible of environmental consumerism, which included a mention of McDonald’s beef having been accused of involvement in tropical deforestation.
This prompted McDonald’s to threaten an injunction to remove the book from sale. Elkington says: “I understand McDonald’s didn’t initially notice the book coming out, but noticed increasing numbers of young people coming into restaurants and asking questions.” The legal advice was not encouraging. He says: “We were told by a very senior lawyer in London we were very unlikely to prevail – unless, that is, we wanted to ‘play poker’. We looked at the legal situation and felt, in fact, we could prevail.”
When McDonald’s leaned on Elkington and Hailes to retract the rainforest allegation, the pair put forward two conditions. First that McDonald’s implement a well-thought-out environmental policy across its operations. And second that the company develop a means to be able to tell, through the supply chain, whether its meat did or did not come from areas that had recently been forested.
Elkington and Hailes eventually met with McDonald’s, but before their meeting, Elkington says, the company sent its director