Food Styling Secrets: Exposed and Appreciated



McDonald’s Canada started a social media marketing campaign called “Our Food, Your Questions” that allows customers to ask questions directly on their Facebook page. The great part is, McDonald’s can’t avoid questions, and they have been more than happy to answer even the most difficult of inquiries–they responded to over 10,000 questions within the first four months.

(I realize this is happening in Canada, but their marketing strategy is extremely relevant to McDonald’s U.S.A.)

One question pertained to the appearance of the food. A woman named Isabel in Toronto asked, “Why does your food look different in the advertising than what’s in the store?”

I’ve personally been asked this question so many times. Why does the burger look so fluffy and big in the picture, and so wimpy in real life?

Some customers think the food in the advertisements is fake, and that devious advertisers and marketers have created masterpieces out of plastic to dupe people into buying items at McDonald’s.

I’ve worked at McDonald’s for three years, and although I don’t have the insider’s marketing knowledge to answer the question, I’ve given this topic some consideration. I suspected the food was a mixture of fake and real, and the pictures we see were heavily Photoshopped in order to merge the two.

I was wrong. And I’m so glad.

The Director of Marketing for McDonald’s Canada, Hope Bagozzi, released a video that documents a “food styling” session for a typical McDonald’s photo shoot. Here it is:

I was immediately impressed at their openness and honesty. I was probably so shocked at first because I was worried they would reveal the “big secrets,” like plastic food. Or something.

Then I realized, the reason they are so willing to be open is because they have nothing to hide. Every single ingredient used during the photo shoot is the same ingredient the customer receives in the restaurant.

What’s the difference, then?

In order to display a burger that people will find appealing and informative, a food stylist must spend hours positioning the ingredients. The goal is to help the customer understand what comes on the burger when he sees a picture of it on the menu board. If you showed him a picture of an everyday Quarter Pounder, the ingredients are all hidden under the bun. If he’s never been to McDonald’s, how is he supposed to know what comes on that burger?

That’s the whole purpose of food styling.

Intense detail goes into constructing the burger. Each piece of slivered onion is carefully chosen from an entire tray of onions. Ketchup and mustard are strategically injected with syringes in a uniform pattern at the front of the sandwich. In the last step, they airbrush out “dimples” on the bun and ragged edges on the cheese. All of these things help the sandwich look logical and plentiful for one specific camera angle. If you look at the sandwich from any other perspective, like from the side, it looks ridiculous–the bun is off-axis, the cheese is hanging off, and everything is pushed to one side of the burger.

Funny. You see the “ideal” burger in the advertisement and think, “I want that!” In reality, if you received that burger, you would probably be mad and demand why it looks like a lost Picasso. On the other hand, if you saw the “typical” Quarter Pounder in an advertisement, you wouldn’t be impressed. Although both burgers contain the same elements, they each serve a different purpose.

After watching this video, I don’t think McDonald’s is trying to “dupe” customers into buying something that “doesn’t live up to the picture.” They make the food look a certain way to display all the ingredients, so you know what you’re ordering. Yeah, they add a few finishing touches, but instead of grumbling, just try to appreciate what they’re doing. It’s a sweet job.

If you’re disappointed that your food doesn’t look like the picture, just remember it was assembled in a different manner, at a different pace, and for a different purpose. It is food, after all–your taste buds, not your eyes, should have the final say.


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