Of all the ads you see on TV or on billboards or the sides of buses, an overwhelming number of them seem to be for food: icy cokes in frosted glasses; fajitas sizzling on the grill; a guy biting into the perfect hamburger on a sesame seed bun. But of course, you know: in real life, these foods do not look like they do in the ads.
In 2012, McDonald’s Canada put out this video about the process they go through to photograph one of their burgers. The audience is introduced to Noah, a food stylist, who painstakingly selects the perfect slices of onion and pickle. He places them on the burger with tweezers, and then precisely melts the cheese. He picks up a plastic syringe filled with ketchup and applies it with surgical precision. At the end of the video, they place a picture of a real burger just ordered at McDonald’s next to the image of this burger, styled to perfection. And the difference is striking.
The last hundred years or so of food advertising have been shaped by this one simple fact: real food usually looks pretty unappetizing on camera. It’s static and boring to look at, and it tends to wilt under the glare of hot studio lights. So advertisers have had to walk a fine line between enhancement and fakery, trying all kinds of tricks to get food to look good.
For a long time, despite the availability of photography, ads in magazines and newspapers relied on illustration, which allowed complete control. Then, with the rise of the television in the 1950s and 1960s, advertisers faced a whole new set of challenges. A lot of them hadn’t figured out how to shoot food in a visually compelling way. In the ad above, the burger just sits there while the ingredients pile on top. Many ads relied heavily on voiceovers, descriptions, and testimonials.
These early ads featured relatively static shots with wide-angle lenses mounted on cameras that didn’t move much. They might zoom and pan a little bit, but that was about it. There were many shots of boxes and labels. The style was pretty conventional, and it wasn’t very dynamic.
Making matters more complicated for food advertisers, the Federal Trade Commission was keeping a close eye on TV ads, following the now-infamous Campbell’s Soup incident of 1968. The company had put marbles in the bottom of a soup bowl in one of their ads to lift sunken vegetables to the surface. When the FTC found out, it accused the company of misleading consumers and threatened Campbell’s with legal action. The event led to a new push for truth-in-advertising and constrained an industry already struggling with how to make their food look appetizing.
Then, in the 1970s, food advertising took a radical turn. Food started moving, which opened the door to all the fancy tricks we see in advertising today: shrimp executing acrobatic flips, lobster claws cracking open in slow-motion, french fries bouncing across a table. An ad director named Elbert Budin developed this new aesthetic:
Take the “prep shot,” which tells the backstory of the product as the ingredients are sliced, diced, chopped, and prepared. Or the “crave shot,” where the camera zooms in to linger on some tantalizing bite. Or the “hero shot,” a stylized look at the food on a plate, ready to eat, usually in the final seconds of an ad. Budin’s breakthrough was that he didn’t just describe the food and promise viewers it tasted good. He made them feel actual hunger with his images.
Budin was originally a potter, who learned photography so he could document his own work. That lead him to commercials. He used a variety of tools to realize his vision, like high-speed cameras that burned through thousands of feet of film in seconds. Originally designed for the military to film rocket tests, these cameras let Budin achieve extreme slow-motion effects, like oranges flying through sheets of water or droplets of condensation dripping down the sides of bottles.
Chutes, spouts, and catapults would move food in precise sequences, leaving little to chance. The same could be done by hand, but the rig gave repeatable results. Fewer mistakes meant less time and money spent on each sequence, and greater precision. Today’s tabletop reels, like the one shown above, reflect those same approaches, just taken to the next level.
Companies like MacGuffin Films, which shoots commercials for Red Lobster (above), Olive Garden, Starbucks, and other restaurants, still use higher-tech versions of the same machines and strategies. Even with newer technologies, it might take them days to film a single sandwich or shoot a dynamic sequence for a Seafood Trio.
Riggers today use lasers, sensors, and pre-programmed motors. And depending on the shot or the rig, there can be some intense physics to take into account — for instance if you’re trying to slice an onion in two while it’s flying through the air. Everything is computer-controlled, achieving incredible precision.
While Budin may have issued in a new age of technology and motion in food commercials, some directors today are trying to move away from his fantastical dreamscapes of flying shrimp and oranges. Now food is often shown in real spaces and places, like in restaurants or at barbecues, and in more realistic ways, dripping some sauce and looking less than perfect:
This “natural” look, of course, does not mean the situation is any less orchestrated or contrived. A 30-second TV spot shot by a firm like MacGuffin Films can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, so the ads still have to serve their purpose by selling a whole lot of food. The same rules still apply: advertisers want their audience to salivate.