How They Make Fast Food Look So Good

Advertising Disclosure: When you buy something by clicking links on our site, we may earn a small commission, but it never affects the products or services we recommend.

Mmmm … that TV commercial makes you want to run out and get two all-beef patties loaded with the fixings on a sesame seed bun. But after a trip through the drive-thru, you realize your burger doesn’t look anything like the one in the commercial.

What’s up with that?

For starters, a burger photo shoot may take hours. The company’s ad department painstakingly arranges every pickle, melts the cheese and then carefully applies ketchup with a syringe.

Meanwhile, your burger was slapped together in 30 seconds by a teenager rushing to keep up with a drive-thru line that is running 10 cars deep. Of course your burger doesn’t look beautiful.

Another reason the food you see in photos may look better is that it could be cooked improperly.

Food stylist Ellie Stern says she prefers to use burgers that are undercooked in photos. That ensures a big, plump patty, whereas fully cooked burgers tend to shrink and look less appetizing.

Then, she carefully pins on the toppings so they stay exactly where placed. So eating one of Stern’s burgers could leave you contaminated with E. coli, not to mention experiencing a mouthful of pain.

Certainly, this type of not-quite-edible photography isn’t unique to the fast-food industry. Plenty of food photographers use unappetizing fill-ins, such as glue for milk, when the real thing doesn’t lend itself to long wait times and bright lights.

Finally, it’s safe to assume that practically every advertisement you see today has been digitally altered in some way. Just as models have had their arms slimmed and lips puffed, fast food has undergone a transformation before being released in an ad.

According to the video linked above, McDonald’s removes imperfections in the bun, adds color to the burger and even adjusts the location of the cheese.

Speaking of cheese, a slide presentation on the American Cheese Society website says “nearly every photo can use some retouching, though less is more.” That presentation is geared toward cheese makers and bloggers, and it also suggests that if more than 25 percent of an image needs to be changed, it might be best to find a new photo to use.

However, McDonald’s is mum in its video as to what percentage of its fast-food photos are touched up.

Is all of this a deception?

Here’s the real question lurking below the surface of this topic: Do fast-food photos amount to deceptive advertising?

McDonald’s Canada points out that the ingredients used for the photo-shoot burger are exactly the same as ingredients slapped together by the kid working the line at your local franchise. They’re simply arranged in a more appealing way.

It is similar to clothing: Even if you buy the same shirt worn by a chiseled model, it will never look the same on you.

Consumer Reports did its own exposé on fast-food fantasy photographs and contacted the Federal Trade Commission about the practice. According to Consumer Reports, “An FTC spokesperson says actions are unlikely in cases of inexpensive products that consumers can easily evaluate.”

In other words, you can walk into a local fast-food joint, see that everyone is eating burgers that look nothing like the ads, and choose to walk back out.

Do these fast-food tactics annoy you? Or is this just an expected part of advertising? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

Get smarter with your money!

Want the best money-news and tips to help you make more and spend less? Then sign up for the free Money Talks Newsletter to receive daily updates of personal finance news and advice, delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for our free newsletter today.