If you haven’t already watched the six-part documentary, McMillion$ on Sky, which unravels the story of how the McDonald’s promotional Monopoly game was used to defraud the international burger company and its customers over a twelve year period, take a look here.

Having watched the docuseries, I can confirm it is as gripping as it is just completely, incomprehensibly, unreal! 

Drivers of corporate misdoing

McMillion$ outlines a chilling, real-world example of how one of the world's largest corporations was used as a front for criminal activity, remaining undetected for over a decade.

How, and why, could this have happened? From a business model perspective, there seems to be a contradiction. Organisations need 'social licenses to operate' and yet large corporations pay millions per year in marketing and advertising to encourage brand loyalty, while dedicating entire teams to keeping customers engaged. They paint a glossy picture of the surface which may not be a true reflection of the actual goings on within the business.

Where does crime fit in?

Looking at the McMillion$ case, it seems people tend to be at the heart of ethical or unethical behaviour. The Monopoly scheme, in particular, was driven by one mastermind. Having worked in law enforcement and security, and having been honourably discharged due to a medical condition, no one would have suspected that he was capable of this level of deception. Yet, even though he was not directly employed by McDonalds and 'just' a marketing contractor of theirs, he was able to abuse the brand. Well him and the criminal expertise of the mob...

Could McDonald's have picked up on this? Maybe. Looking at advances in technologies there might be solutions to monitoring ethical decision making, and companies are increasingly adopting value-based recruitment approaches. However, keeping in mind that the Monopoly game is still a massive part of the McDonald's yearly income, the incentive for big corporations to really act ethically could be brought into question. It is often seen as something that doesn't contribute to the bottom line but requires disruption and time, so why bother?

From a social sciences perspective, an answer could be that by thinking about business through a social lens and using technology to assist, we become much more attuned to our social and corporate responsibilities as they change.  

Depending on what damage is inflicted upon the brand name based on criminality, social harm or ethical wrong doings, society will dictate the severity of reputational damage. So, from an ethical and moral perspective, as well as good business sense, actions should always be implemented to mitigate or hopefully eradicate social harm. 

Using technology to monitor ethical decision making

In the case of McDonalds and its contractors, technology could be used to monitor ethical decision making. These technologies are likely to grow in popularity as digital adoption becomes ever more present across all companies. 

While these technologies can be expensive and labour intensive to implement, especially over a vast geographical space, they can help brands ensure accountability for their own, their employees and their contractor's actions, when justified. 

Of course, these technologies themselves can also be misused. Tech is not “good” or “evil” but unfortunately just like all areas of society, it can be exploited by dishonest or desperate people, for their own financial gain. This means that the use of monitoring technologies must always be done sensibly, ideally paired with a policy surrounding ethics. By gaining tangible evidence through these processes and methods, it means suspected fraudulent behaviour within the company can be identified and actioned appropriately. 

It is fundamental that technology and monitoring processes are continually assessed to make sure they are up to date, fit for purpose and more importantly, not being abused, no matter how small or inconsequential the sum.

Accountability across society

Despite being implemented in over a decade of fraud, the McDonald's monopoly game has generated millions in revenue over the years, even after society became aware of the criminal activity. 

Why might this be?

One answer could be that the brand was so big the marketing department and PR teams were able to apportion blame to its contractor, using it's strength to deflect. The "we are sorry and lessons have been learned" is a line we hear all too often.

A second answer could be that customers love getting the freebies associated with the game. They don't truly expect to win the big prizes and feel they are already "winning" when they get a 2-4-1 burger or a free coffee with their nuggets. However, they have already had to purchase something in the first place to be a winner. Brands aren't giving you something for free but maybe half price... if you are lucky.

My final thought is that society reacts to societal events but there is fluidity in its approach. For example, this scandal broke in America and it was BIG news. However, as the McMillions$ documentary highlighted, it coincided with the 9-11 attacks and those terrible atrocities quickly dominated media and public consciousness. McDonald’s being defrauded was suddenly inconsequential. 

Why is it important?

By critically evaluating those cases of unethical and criminal company behaviour that have escaped public consciousness, we can develop a better understanding of what expectations and guidance we should implement surrounding ethics and accountability. These debates can, in turn, provide incentives for firms to adopt better ethical practices and work toward better accountability.