After receiving complaints that fast foods are visually less attractive in person than in their ads, menus, billboards, or websites, Consumer Reports sent staffers to seven fast-food chains: Burger King, Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s, Quiznos, Subway, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s.
Staffers visited two or three stores per chain, ordered a variety of menu items, photographed them in a van parked outside, then compared what they purchased with the picture on the website.
Consumer Reports claims some foods resembled their publicity shots, but at each chain at least one sample of one menu item did not.
In their investigative review, Consumer Reports suggested Subway sandwiches were the worst offenders, which came as no surprise to some of their readers.
As one said, “None of them look like what they are advertising.” Said another: “Go to any Subway store. Order from that nice, beautiful menu board. Then look at what they shove into the bag they give you.”.
According to Elizabeth Lordan, a press spokeswoman for the Federal Trade Commission, truth-in-advertising laws do apply when restaurants show menu items in print and television ads.
Although no specific FTC regulations govern the photos that marketers use to sell food, Section 5 of the FTC Act says that “the net impression of any advertisement—which includes photographs, other graphic elements, and text—must be truthful and non-misleading.”
But Lordon admits the FTC hasn’t pursued any cases alleging that food ads are deceptive based on photos.
“That isn’t surprising,” she added. “The commission is unlikely to take law-enforcement actions in cases where consumers can easily evaluate the product, it’s inexpensive, and it’s frequently purchased.”
Food stylist Donna Lafferty’s job is to make foods look perfect for the camera.
“The difference between me and a chef,” says Lafferty, whose list of clients includes Chefs Catalog and General Electric, “is that my work is designed to be viewed and sell products. A chef’s food is designed to be eaten.”
Below are some of her techniques.
Lafferty often has to sort through lots of buns to find nicely colored tops and bottoms that match. As for wraps, to keep them from drying out, she’ll apply a thin layer of Vaseline. To keep them from unraveling? She makes a paste from flour and water.
For presentation purposes, it’s barely cooked (to avoid looking “cremated,” Lafferty says). It gets a rich, roasted complexion from a mixture of Kitchen Bouquet, a seasoning sauce, and Angostura bitters.
The real deal melts, of course, so Lafferty creates a faux ice cream by mixing sugar, shortening, corn syrup, and coloring. You might not want to eat it, but it can be scooped.
Once it has been cut, some fresh fruit quickly dries out and discolors. A solution: Paint on a mixture of water and a product called Quick Thick, which makes fruit glisten.
The challenge is to keep red tomato sauce from staining the bread and making it soggy. Lafferty’s solution: a barrier of clear spray. For pizza, a clothes steamer imparts a fresh-from-the-oven look.
Check out Consumer Report’s “ad versus reality” photographs on the following foods:
McDonald’s: Sausage McMuffin with Egg
The ad. It’s a neat stack of cheese, sausage, and egg.
The reality. It’s lopsided and a bit goopy.
Dunkin’ Donuts: Wake-Up Wrap with Bacon
The ad. There’s egg, cheese, and bacon. What’s not to like?
The reality. Calling all ingredients to the front!
Burger King: Crispy Chicken BLT Salad Wrap
The ad. The ingredients emerge from a carefully folded wrap.
The reality. The person who made the wrap needs an origami lesson.
Subway: Chipotle Steak & Cheese with Avocado
The ad. It’s gaping, and look at all that avocado.
The reality. It’s swaybacked, and the green is barely seen. As a buyer of a Subway turkey avocado sandwich told us, the avocado “was spread across the bread, staining the bread yellowish-green,” and it added “no measurable depth.”
Taco Bell: Gordita Supreme, Beef
The ad. Round bread is stuffed with meat that’s topped by vegetables.
The reality. Misshapen, blemished bread and some veggies. But to quote an ad from another fast-food chain, where’s the beef?
Wendy’s: Dave’s Hot ’N Juicy ¼-pound Single with Cheese
The ad. Melted cheese sits atop a charbroiled meat square that extends over the bun’s edge, with red tomato and a full lettuce leaf.
The reality. The beef doesn’t overlap the bun, the lettuce is shredded, and the cheese is almost invisible. As a reader griped about all fast-food joints, “Sometimes my burger looks like … a person put it together while wearing a blindfold.”
Quiznos: The Traditional
The ad. The loaf is so full you might have to unhinge your jaw.
The reality. Well, at least the bread is thick.