Why Does that Burger Look Better in the Ad than in the Wrapper?

April 15th, 2014

A reader sent us a tip about the mushroom burger at Wendy’s—apparently it wasn’t nearly as appetizing in real life as it was in an ad she had seen. When we went to investigate, the mushroom burger was no longer on the menu, but there were plenty of other options to compare, and we found that the real-life food items didn’t look like they appeared in Wendy’s ads. (See below for side-by-side shots.)

Ciabatta Bacon Cheeseburger

ciabatta-compare

French Fries

fries-compare

When we asked Wendy’s about the apparent difference, Kitty Munger, director of communications, said:

We make many thousands of sandwiches and salads in our restaurants every day.  Our crew members and managers are trained to make each product according to our specifications so it not only looks good, but it tastes good.  Sometimes our crew members are trying to serve customers quickly and the product doesn’t look exactly like the photo.  I’m sorry that your reader had that experience.

It’s important to know that the products we photograph for our commercials and other materials are made according to the same specifications used in our restaurants.  We take […] a little more time to make the product look perfect in the photos, but the specs are the same.

Fair enough, but it can still be disappointing to get the quickly served version if you’re expecting the picture-perfect version.

Wendy’s is far from alone in using in ads photos of food that don’t always look like the item you get in the restaurants. As Consumer Reports detailed in a recent article, food stylists, in general, use a whole bag of tricks to make food appear as delicious as possible in advertisements for companies. Often their tricks make food appear even more delicious than possible. To make meat look golden brown, for example, stylists may sear just the outside with a blowtorch and add dye, shoe polish, or varnish for color. They may go through many heads of lettuce to find the perfect leaves. Water droplets and sheen may be created with glycerin or hairspray.

Burgers and sandwiches are sometimes pinned together with toothpicks or straight pins so that stylists can achieve the perfect symmetry and height. It’s also common for burgers to be propped up with cardboard for the extra support and so the carefully chosen bun doesn’t get soggy. On burgers with sesame seeds, stylists may meticulously place seeds with tweezers and glue.

This video isn’t the most current, but it demonstrates some interesting food-styling techniques. (It also demonstrates the ’80s.)

Add to all these tricks a healthy amount of digital enhancement, and you’ve got some pretty enticing food ads.

Even though Wendy’s says it doesn’t use all of these techniques, it’s clear the pictures in their ads often surpass what you get in reality.

So bring your blowtorch and tweezers when dining out–or keep your expectations in check.

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