Fast Food=Cultural Demise?

Fast Food=Cultural Demise?

They’re losing their culture, they even have a McDonald’s.

A variation of this comment can be heard the world over.  It usually comes from a European that sees McDonald’s as a harbinger of cultural demise.  Knowing that a comment like that only comes from an irrational person, I haven’t questioned their logic.  Why is it that the presence of a McDonald’s is a bad thing?  Does the presence of a McDonald’s have any connection to culture?  I believe, that for most countries, the presence of a McDonald’s (and other international companies) is a sign of success.

The revolutionary meal of choice. “Red Shirt” protestors in Bangkok taking a dinner break at McDonald’s.

I will not claim that McDonald’s is an epicurean delight or healthy, but the fact that an international chain or franchise exists shows that a country can support it.  McDonald’s doesn’t exist in places that people can’t pay for it, most stores are franchises with a single motivation: profit.  Franchisees build stores where they can get the maximum return; they don’t open stores as a crusade to crush cultures or as a CIA outpost.  It is only when a financed franchisee and the market can support it that the golden arches rise in a new city or country.  The existence of a McDonald’s implies that there are people in a country that can afford it, that it has moved past subsistence farming.

After having a populace that can afford it, the second reason that international chains exist is because people like them.  Step into a Starbucks in Singapore, a Tesco in Thailand, or a McDonald’s in Malaysia and you will notice something: it’s packed with locals.  There is no subversive mind-altering ploy to trick people into coming; rather the locals are choosing to patronize these stores.  It might be price, selection or service, but these stores thrive because they are better meeting local needs than competitors.

From open till close, Krispy Kreme in Bangkok has dozens of people in line.

Are the locals losing their culture?  Somewhat.  No longer does gathering household goods require a day of stopping at specialized stalls.  The interactions and life around markets is less and less as people choose mega-centers.  A diet including fast food is probably not as healthy as other options, but the cheap protein options are a plus.  Traditional clothing is giving way to western styles.

There are bits of culture that are lost, but this is an evolution, not a death.  Life that once revolved around farming and grueling household tasks such as carrying water for miles gave way to wells then bottles.  Diets have evolved over time due to preferences and weather.  Fashion is a never-ending progression.  While it may bother a tourist to see “Westernization” or culture’s evolution, this has been a constant part of human history.

KFC, arguably the world’s favorite fastfood restaurant, adapts to local tastes.  Fried chicken+egg tarts?  This is Asian heaven.

The other side of the coin is that a society gains real benefits from international companies investing in their country.  Any McDonald’s or Tesco’s food department is indisputably maintaining higher food safety standards than local vendors.  The inventory management personnel learn ways to handle massive volumes of merchandise and the importance of keeping popular goods in stock.  The managers learn about cash handling and control, auditing and managing more employees than they ever would in a family store.  The store clerks learn how to use computerized systems and the up-sell.  Everyone involved learns higher levels of customer service than is normal in most places.  These are lessons that employees will take with them to share and into other roles, thereby improving the country.  While we may not see being a McDonald’s or Tesco employee as a great job, in these countries there are many lessons to be learned that can benefit the society as a whole.

While it is easy to jump on the growth of international companies as the end of civilization, the reality is more complex.  There are real benefits brought to a society that can support these companies.  The companies that choose to enter developing markets choose them because they’re stable and successful.  We should probably be spending our time worrying more about the countries that do not attract international companies than the cultures in those that do.  Next time you see a country with one McDonald’s you should realize, this is a country on the up and up.  Next time you visit it will be a little better off, with a few more McDonald’s.

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» bka :
Apr 5, 2011

written like the economist you are…..would need an entire page or 2 to respond adequately, so will cop out by suggesting, that i see the “econ” benefit and will give you credit for acknoledging that there is some “negative” social change/impact, but i rarely do I see gentrification and or “westernization” as good things…..did you notice the woman 5th from the left in line at mac and don’s?…..much more relaxing/less stresful to have our “normal” Anderson dinner discussions via e-mail as opposed to the face to face “you “knot head” confrontations……be safe and congrats on surviving the motorcycle sand dune/pothole/watch out for the cow travail……..peace……bka

» Mom A :
Apr 6, 2011

I have been somewhat torn to see McDonald’s or KFC in travels abroad but your analysis is the winning factor, as well as the rationale that we have things like Mexican fast food that didn’t come with our founding fathers and didn’t really come because of the immigrant population today. Our guide in China told us that many office workers who have very little time for lunch, or even time to pack a lunch from home, go to McDonald’s because it is fast enough and there isn’t much street food around some of the business areas any more. Who knows what will happen in the future with fast food? And China is still China, even if they do like KFC!

» Reeves :
Jan 21, 2012

It’s the most ridiculous thing. Even now there are still lines at KK in BKK, even the new one at Central Ladprao, yet every Thai I know that’s eaten them doesn’t like them much – says they’re “too sweet”.

It’s a ‘brand thing’, nothing more. Thais love to buy the latest in-thing. Give it a year or two, and nobody will be buying these things :)

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About the Author

thinkCHUA: Photographing and documenting the world on a 3 year round-the-world trip to help future travelers discover new places, travel longer and enjoy the world's great experiences.

About the Author
thinkCHUA: Photographing and documenting the world on a 3 year round-the-world trip to help future travelers discover new places, travel longer and enjoy the world's great experiences.


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