Truth Behind The Advertising

14 10 2011

Boy, that burger looks good enough to eat, huh?

It should. After all, it’s supposed to. It’s a work of art. But it’s not really food.

I know that many of you would claim that no fast food is really food. Bestselling writer Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, and Food Rules, has gone so far as to call it an “edible foodlike substance.” But bear with me for a minute.

The burger in the picture looks good enough to eat. But even if you like burgers, you wouldn’t want to eat this one.

That’s because:

  • The meat was only cooked for twenty seconds per side to avoid, as George Costanza famously put it, “shrinkage.” It’s still raw in the middle, but no matter. So long as it looks big and juicy on camera.
  • To make it look even bigger, a pie-shaped wedge was cut out from the back side of the patty, out of view of the camera, so that the remainder could be spread out on the bun.
  • A red-hot skewer was used to “brand” the meat, giving the appearance of grill marks. Then it was painted with a mixture of brown food coloring, molasses, and wood stain to give it that perfect color.
  • The bun was carefully selected from hundreds of contenders for its perfect shape. Then sesame seeds were carefully affixed with tweezers and glue. To keep it from getting soggy, it was coated with waterproofing spray. The burger is also sitting on top of a cardboard platform in a specially made diaper that absorbs all of the juices.
  • The vegetables were selected from cases of lettuce, tomatoes, and onions to find the perfect specimens. Then they were put in place with straight pins and toothpicks.
  • See that perfect shine on the meat, cheese, and vegetables? That’s a mixture of water and glycerin, an oily component of fats that’s used in soaps, skin care products, and industrial solvents. It was misted on by spray bottle because it lasts for up to 15 minutes under the hot studio lights.
  • If they had wanted condiments for this shot, those would have been carefully applied by paintbrush or glue gun.

And that’s just the burger. Don’t even get me started on the fries, which were hand selected and mounted to a Styrofoam board to create the perfect bouquet.

Still sound good? It’s enough to make you lose your appetite.

Nothing Is As It Seems

The fact of the matter is that there’s about as much truth in fast food advertising as there is nutrition in fast food.

Think burger ads are the only culprits? Think again.

You know the iconic cereal commercials where the flakes and the milk cascade together down into the bowl? It’s a great visual, but there’s a big problem with that: cereal gets soggy in milk. And nobody wants to buy soggy cereal. The solution? They usually use white glue instead.

How about the rich syrup that gets poured over heaping stacks of warm, freshly made pancakes? Same problem. That’s why the syrup is usually motor oil.

Professional food stylists also hate things that melt. Ice, for example. Anytime you see an ad with ice in it, it’s usually acrylic. Not only won’t it melt, it also catches the light better.

Ice cream melts, too. That’s why the ice cream you see in ads is often made of shortening, margarine, powdered sugar, and corn syrup. The mixture is like clay, but it looks like the real thing, and it can be stored for months.

How do they get away with that?

Easy. You’d think there would be rules about food advertisements, and there are. You have to show the real product you’re selling. But there aren’t any rules about what else you show along with it.

You know how toy ads always show more toys than are actually included? By showing extra stuff, they make the product look better. It’s the same with food ads.

Cereal makers aren’t selling milk, so they don’t have to use milk in their commercials. Pancake mixes don’t come with syrup. Drinks don’t come with ice. And that’s why they don’t have to show real syrup or real ice.

Nobody expects you to eat glue or motor oil. But the ads aren’t telling you to. You didn’t even know that’s what you were seeing.

The rules about truth in advertising only apply to the products being advertised. Everything else is extraneous.

If You’re Over 50, You Probably Have Clogged Arteries…
But They Don’t Have to Stay That Way!

As early as age 10, you start to accumulate fat in your arteries… 
and over the years it continues to build up.

By the time you’re 50, your arteries are full of thick, sticky plaque and
too narrow for optimal blood flow… leaving you at increased risk
for heart or brain problems.

But What About the Burger?

That loophole is big enough to drive a Mack truck through, but it kind of makes sense. It still doesn’t explain the burger, though.

Or the ice cream, for that matter. If they’re selling ice cream, don’t they have to show real ice cream?

They do indeed. That’s why the ice cream “recipe” above is what they use in commercials for hot fudge or whipped cream or apple pie.

When they’re selling ice cream, though, then they have a problem. Interestingly, it’s the same problem they have with pudding.

The lights in a photo studio are so hot that even pudding will melt under them. Runny pudding? Now there’s a disgusting idea. To keep that from happening, the pudding they use in ads has so much gelatin in it that you’d chip a tooth if you tried to eat it.

It’s basically real. They used the same ingredients. It’s not something else altogether.

But it’s an awfully fine line.

Something similar happens when they try to sell you roast chicken. Cooking a chicken makes the skin wrinkle up. It doesn’t look pretty like on TV.

But if they’re selling chicken, then they have to show you chicken.

So here’s what they usually do. They cook the bird until the skin turns golden brown. The inside is still raw, but that’s okay. It’s still real chicken, and it’s not on camera.

Then they wash the whole thing with dishwashing detergent to remove unsightly fat and grease spots. They stuff it tightly with hot, wet paper towels to create steam. Then they use a needle and thread to sew up the back of the bird and pull the skin tight.

Once that’s done, they paint it with an appropriate mixture of food coloring, molasses, oil, wood stain — whatever they have on hand to get the color they want.

To top it all off, they use a blowtorch to brown any parts that are still a bit too pale to be photogenic. Quite the tanning booth, I’d say.

It’s still real chicken. And honestly, it hasn’t had anything done to it that people don’t do to themselves for cosmetic reasons.

Call it a chicken with a makeover.

That Still Doesn’t Explain the Burger

Well, it does and it doesn’t. You have to show the real product you’re selling. But you want to show that product in the best possible light.

Consider what they do in soup ads. If you leave a bowl of soup to settle, all the good stuff falls to the bottom. But when it’s on camera, you want all that good stuff to show.

One way to fix the problem would be just to add more stuff. Put in more of the meat and the veggies that are already in there and more will show. Simple enough, right?

Problem is, you can’t do that. You can’t use twelve ounces of meat and vegetables if there’s really only six in the product. That, says the government, would be dishonest.

Instead, when they film soup commercials, they use marbles to “prop up” the meat and the vegetables. They’re showing you the real product. They’re even showing you the real amount of the product.

And that, says the government, is truth in advertising.

Ever see an ad for mashed potatoes where the bowl looks impossibly full? Real mashed potatoes. Right amount. But usually with newspaper wadded up underneath so that it looks like more.

Truth in advertising.

Anytime you see an advertisement for food on a plate or a drink in a glass, it has to be the real food and drink. But the plates and glasses are probably tiny. If they’re shot from a very close-up angle, you can’t even tell the difference. Except, of course, that the food looks bigger.

Truth in advertising.

And the burger?

Well, what about it? They’re showing you a real burger.

They can’t use more meat than they use in the real product. So they don’t. They just make it look bigger.

They can’t put things on the burger that they don’t put on the real product. So they don’t. They just make them look better.

They can’t say anything that is untrue about their product. So they don’t. They lie with pictures instead.

Truth be told, that’s even more effective. A picture’s worth a thousand words.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is truth in advertising.

Deception Is Everywhere

Are you feeling swindled right about now?

It gets worse. The deception isn’t limited to advertisements.

Remember the trick with forced perspective? Restaurants do the same thing. In fact, many chains have started to experiment with lighter silverware so that your fork “feels” fuller with each bite.

Manufacturers know about perspective, too. That’s why products are almost always made taller than they are wide. Psychological studies have shown that we tend to systematically overestimate the volume of tall, skinny containers while underestimating the volume of short, fat ones.

The extra sales easily make up for the increased production costs.

How about dressing up meat so that it looks better than it really is? Butchers and supermarkets are just as guilty as advertisers. Fresh meat is bright red. We instinctively know this, and so we look at color as an indication of freshness.

Meat marketers know this, too. And they know that we know. That’s why in 2004, they applied for FDA approval to use carbon monoxide to keep it looking fresh for longer.

The scary part is, they got it. The FDA actually approved the use of a poisonous gas to keep your meat looking artificially fresh.

I will repeat that.

The FDA actually approved the use of a poisonous gas to keep your meat looking artificially fresh.

Granted, the concentration is so low that there is little to no risk of poisoning. I am not aware of a single reported case. Nonetheless, I don’t like the precedent it sets.

Europe is traditionally much more lenient regarding food regulations than the U.S. And yet, the practice is banned there for fear that it would mask spoilage.

It may well be the ultimate case of false advertising.

What Can You Do About It?

The single best way to protect yourself from deceptive advertisements is to educate yourself. Be skeptical of everything you see, everything you hear, and everything you read. That’s the best way to keep from being misled.

Always be aware when someone’s trying to sell you something.

Look for proof behind any health claims they make.

Remember that very few things are actually as good as advertised.

And if you see a pretty picture, keep in mind that that’s exactly what it is: a pretty picture. A work of art. But definitely not food.

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