June 21, 2012 -- The most elaborate photo shoot I've been involved in to date was for a popular candy bar. By the time I got to the shoot, the crew had been working for several hours under the direction of an acclaimed food photographer and our art director. On a table were two foot-long candy bar models that had been carefully fabricated out of plastic to make sure they matched the "hero" (or hand-made to be perfect) candy bars we had been provided by the manufacturer. In the case of this product, the "decoration" or wavy pattern on the top had a specific design and the chocolate was without blemishes (like the air holes that occur during the normal manufacturing process).
There were two assistants in waders, knee deep in a vat of chocolate. A complex rig had been developed that would create waves in the vat and another rig was designed to bring the two halves of the chocolate bar out of the vat in a smooth motion. On the counter, were several hand-manufactured candy bars and two food stylists were working with paint brushes and various jars containing liquids artfully creating smooth delectable-looking chocolate.
Nine hours later, we had a signature ending that would last a fraction under 5 seconds to end our TV commercials.
McDonald's of Canada has put a YouTube video up showing how they prepare a Quarter Pounder with Cheese sandwich for a photo shoot and I must admit I was surprised at how little they do. How does what they do compare to what is done in the industry to make the food you buy appeal to you in advertisements?
In the YouTube video, Hope Begozzi, the Director of Marketing for McDonalds Canada first goes to a local McDonald's and orders a burger. She takes it out of the package to show the camera, reboxes it and takes it to their commercial photographer. He places the store-bought burger on a table top in front of the camera and photographs it. We then see a food stylist style a burger which is placed next to the first burger. There is a marked difference in the styled burger. The mustard and catsup are put into place with a syringe. The onions and pickles are all hand placed.
The resulting product looks magnificent. And every ingredient used in the shoot was an actually item used in the store.
Over the course of my career I have seen acrylic ice cubes, Karo syrup used for the sweat on beer bottles, liquids like motor oil and cranberry juice to make liquids look more appealing, tooth picks, super glue, wood stain and shoe polish. And throughout my career, every piece of meat has been undercooked (nearly raw actually) to make it appear juicy and succulent.
The average McDonalds employee makes under $8 an hour. The average food stylist takes home up to $150 per hour. It takes, at minimum, an art director, food stylist, prop stylist and a retoucher to make food look like you want to eat it. I went across the street at lunchtime to watch a large crowd eat at McDonald's. I didn't see anyone that looked like a food critic there. Just a large, diverse crowd trying to stay cool and get their grub on.
A couple of years ago, Domino's Pizza became the first large food franchise to announce it would no longer retouch its food photography in an attempt to keep its pledge to be honest and transparent to its customers. As the internet and social media force more industry secrets out into the open here's hoping more companies will follow suit even though you might find that when it comes to food a little fantasy and presentation may be in order.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Larry Woodard is a director on the Advertising Week board and chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies' New York Council.
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