The Travis Scott meal has been a massive win for McDonald's, boosting sales at its franchises, driving up its stock price, generating fawning press coverage, and giving rise to an untold number of memes and TikToks about the collaboration. Thanks to the mega-popular rapper's endorsement, customers went nuts for Scott's "signature" combo: a Quarter Pounder with bacon, fries with barbecue sauce, and a Sprite. Scott's label, Cactus Jack, also teamed up with McDonald's to release a line of merch, from branded T-shirts to chicken nugget-shaped body pillows. The apparel sold out in days (before being listed for resale at exorbitantly high prices), and franchises reportedly faced a "shortage" of menu items that came with the meal.
At first blush, the collaboration might seem like nothing more than an innocuous, well-executed marketing campaign—but according to Marcia Chatelain and Chin Jou, two historians who have written extensively about McDonald's' complicated relationship with race in America, the timing is convenient at best. The fast-food behemoth is currently embroiled in two lawsuits filed by Black executives and franchise owners accusing the corporation of racial discrimination. One was filed in January; the second was filed in September, the month McDonald's launched its collaboration with Scott.
"McDonald's should be in the doghouse when it comes to African Americans right now," said Jou, a senior lecturer in American history at the University of Sydney, and the author of Supersizing Urban America: How Inner Cities Got Fast Food With Government Help. "This Travis Scott juggernaut has been so successful at obfuscating other McDonald's-related news items."
The first lawsuit, filed by two former executives at McDonald's, claims the company "conducted a ruthless purge" of its Black leaders and fostered a "hostile and abusive work environment" for Black executives and franchise owners. The number of Black employees in upper-level positions at McDonald's dropped from 42 in 2014 to just seven by last year, the lawsuit claims. The plaintiffs, Vicki Guster-Hines and Domineca Neal, were demoted from their roles as senior vice presidents in 2018—demotions they say were rooted in their race.
The second suit was filed by a group of 52 Black franchise owners who claim McDonald's subjected them to "systematic and covert racial discrimination" over the span of decades. The company allegedly strong-armed them into opening locations in low-income, high-crime areas, where sales were lower than the nationwide average, operating costs were higher, and employee turnover was rampant. Black franchisees were given less financial support and harsher internal reviews than their white counterparts, the lawsuit claims—and those who complained allegedly faced retaliation.
McDonald's didn't respond to a request for comment from VICE, but it has vehemently denied the allegations in both suits. Meanwhile, the company released a polished video in early June condemning racial injustice on Twitter, and launched a collaboration with Scott, one of the most prominent Black artists in America.
"[I] wonder if the decision to go forward with this collaboration was a response to not only the criticism on the part of Black franchisees for their treatment within the McDonald's system, but the pressures they have been facing as a result of claims of racial discrimination at the corporate headquarters," said Chatelain, a professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University, and the author of Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America. "This had probably set up a process of collaborating with Travis Scott, if it didn't necessarily inspire it."
Lawsuits aside, Chatelain sees McDonald's decision to partner with a Black artist as a blatant ploy to draw in more customers of color, especially young ones, a demographic the chain has been fixated on for decades. A 2019 study from the University of Connecticut showed that McDonald's and other fast-food companies spend an outsize portion of their marketing budgets advertising to Black and brown kids. They target that demographic by placing ads, which largely push the fast-food chains' most unhealthy offerings, on TV shows geared toward Black and Latinx children, the authors of the study wrote. Public health experts have criticized this practice for contributing to high rates of obesity among children of color. According to the CDC, obesity affects 26 percent of Hispanic children and 22 percent of Black children in the US, compared to 14 percent of white children.
On Monday, McDonald's announced it was teaming up with J Balvin, one of the best-selling Latin artists on the planet, for its next celebrity-endorsed meal. Just like the brand's partnership with Scott, Chatelain said, that choice probably wasn't a coincidence.
"There's no question that this is an attempt to try to shore up brand recognition and brand loyalty for McDonald's on the part of consumers of color," Chatelain said. "[McDonald's] knows that that market spends a lot of money on fast food, that that market is consuming fast food regularly and for multiple meals. They know where their restaurants are; they also know who has grown up eating McDonald's."
Black and brown kids are more likely than their white counterparts to grow up in food deserts, Chatelain and Jou said, where a lack of access to grocery stores means fast-food restaurants may be among the only food options they have. They're more likely to grow up in poverty; with little disposable income, patronizing a restaurant like McDonald's can be the most cost-effective way to eat. A childhood allegiance to McDonald's can stay with someone for life, Chatelain and Jou said, despite evidence that a fast-food-heavy diet can lead to negative health outcomes like diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. While McDonald's has pledged to tweak its advertising in a way that would encourage Black and brown kids to opt for healthier menu items, its celebrity campaigns—which push cheeseburgers, fries, and sodas—run counter to that.
"These efforts are not new," Chatelain said. "Whether it's Ronald McDonald breakdancing in the 80s, or creating the Travis Scott meal in order to appeal to Black consumers, McDonald's has been doing this for a very, very long time. And they have found it effective."
Publicly, McDonald's has positioned itself as an ally of Black and Latinx Americans, claiming that it has "potentially created more economic impact for diverse communities than any other company in the world." It points to the makeup of its workforce, which is largely comprised of people of color, and touts the number of Black and Latinx people who own its franchises. But it doesn't discuss the discrimination those employees allegedly face; the fact that 80 percent of its workers don't have access to paid sick leave; or its refusal to increase pay for for its cooks and cashiers, who make minimum wage while the company's profits continue to climb. Instead, it brushes those galling realities under the rug—and its collaborations with Scott and Balvin have only helped with that.
"They've been celebrated, and they've celebrated themselves, for reaching out to minority communities," Jou said. "But when you pull back the curtain, there are problems."
Update (10/8): After publication, McDonald’s USA sent VICE the following statement: “Any claim that McDonald’s collaboration with Travis Scott was launched in response to recent litigation is completely false. We teamed up with Travis—and our newest celebrity partner, J Balvin—because of their love for the McDonald’s brand, their widespread appeal and their loyal following among our younger customers and our crew. In regards to the litigation—these allegations fly in the face of everything we stand for as an organization and as a partner to communities and small business owners around the world. Not only do we categorically deny the allegations, but we are confident that the facts will show how committed we are to the diversity and equal opportunity of the McDonald’s System, including across our franchisees, suppliers and employees.”
Correction (10/8): Marcia Chatelain is a professor at Georgetown University, not George Washington University. This article has been updated to reflect that. We regret the error.
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