Most of us at some point have bought a meal based solely on its mouth-watering appearance in a commercial. And just as many of us have been disappointed when the finished product doesn’t quite match what we pictured in our heads. This is no coincidence, though, as food companies regularly employ stylists to spruce up their products for the screen.
But while this practise just skirts around false advertising, the techniques these artists use are certainly more than misleading. Indeed, you may lose your appetite after learning about the weird tricks that make these morsels look so succulent.
20. Undercooked meat looks bigger on screen
Ever bought a burger that looked smaller than it did on screen? Well, there’s a common explanation for that. Because meat tends to shrink when cooked, stylists – like Janine Kalesis who explained the trick to CNBC in 2014 – only grill patties and other meat products until they’re brown on the surface. This means that most burgers shown in commercials are actually raw.
19. Shoe polish gives meat that fresh-from-the-oven feel
Since the majority of photographed meat is undercooked, advertisers employ little gimmicks to make this raw food look more palatable. One such technique employed by artists like Jack Sargeson – who revealed his secrets in 2016 project Faking It – is to simply paint meat a darker shade. In particular, shoe polish really shines at giving food a recently cooked appearance.
18. Spreading out burger patties gives them greater volume
In addition to undercooking their patties, burger artists also employ another tested trick to boost their subject’s size. As explained by Jennifer Eustock in the 1990 PSA Buy Me That, stylists often cut a V-shape in the back of the patty. This lets them easily spread the meat apart to give the snack extra volume.
17. Glazed foods are most likely poisonous
Juicy foods make our tastebuds water the most, and advertisers aren’t blind to this fact. To give some meals that moist look, moreover, stylists will spray their food with a variety of oils. However, this often renders their products inedible. For example, stylist Kim Krejca admitted to to coating food with the deadly lubricant WD-40 while chatting to The Guardian in 2016.
16. Soy sauce makes coffee easier to snap
While black coffee seems easy to show on screen, the drink is actually the stuff of food stylists’ nightmares. Indeed, coffee is difficult to photograph because of its shiny surface, and so it requires a little work to tone down its texture. To this end, artists like Charlotte Omnes and Michelle Rabin use anything from soy sauce to gelatin to imitate a cup of freshly brewed joe.
15. Dish soap can fill out a latte’s froth
On the other hand, lattes can pose as much of a challenge as black coffee. Under the glare of studio lights, milk and foam evaporates, meaning that an alternative is usually required. And while speaking to The Guardian in 2016, artist Tamara Kaufman admitted to using soap to breathe life into her cup.
14. Mashed potato makes convincing ice cream
Like coffee foam, ice cream is notoriously difficult to keep frozen in stuffy studio conditions. So stylists like Sargeson turn to a savory substitute. Indeed, mashed potatoes mixed with lard and food coloring is almost indistinguishable from the chilly dessert.
13. Shaving foam can top off a scrumptious sundae
Whipped cream can make any desert look appealing on camera, but what you see in commercials is far from the real thing. Both Kaufman and Sargeson have admitted to using shaving foam as a replacement product in the past, due to cream’s habit of melting under lights.
12. Sesame seeds can be hard to separate from their buns
Believe it or not, but photographing fast food is a labor of love. In addition to making a burger patty look as big as possible, stylists like Eustock spend countless hours finding the perfect bun. After rejecting many potential candidates, moreover, artists will improve their selection by gluing extra sesame seeds on top.
11. Cardboard stops buns from going soggy
Finding the right bun can be an arduous process, and a greasy burger can ruin that hard work instantly. To stop her product going soggy, then, Eustock and many stylists like her separate the patty from its pad with a thin strip of cardboard. This approach can be applied to syrup-drenched pancakes as well.
10. Talcum powder can make grapes feel more authentic
And it’s not just fast foods that get the studio stylist treatment; plenty of healthy snacks get a makeover for the camera as well. In particular, stylists like Sargeson use talcum powder in order to get that dusty straight-from-the-vineyard look on grapes.
9. Toothpicks keep a burger’s dressing in place
While some of us are inclined to pick the pickles out of a cheeseburger, a healthy dose of salad can make or break a burger’s appearance. In order to show a bountiful dose of veggies, artists such as Eustock will carefully arrange a burger’s dressing. They then use toothpicks or pins to keep the salad in place.
8. Melted cheese is runny for a reason
In a similar fashion, a gooey cheese topping can really sell a burger. Because most patties are snapped cold, though, getting the dairy product to melt of its own accord is often impossible. According to Reader’s Digest, cheese is therefore mixed with hot water instead to achieve that runny look we know so well.
7. Milk is more PVA than UHT
A bowl of cereal doesn’t look the same without milk, but dairy will make the most appetizing breakfast treat go soggy in a matter of minutes. So, while it sounds disgusting, glue or sunscreen will counteract this problem and maintain a consistency similar to the real McCoy. Just ask Kaufman or Krejca, who regularly use this technique.
6. French fries are stacked like a bouquet of flowers
Whenever we pass by a McDonald’s, we can’t help going in and indulging in a portion of French fries. Part of the product’s appeal, though, lies in advertising and the way that each fry appears perfectly arranged in its package. And to achieve this effect, artists like Eustock neatly line up every single one of them and then pin them to a block of Styrofoam to maintain their shape.
5. Motor oil stands in for maple syrup
In perhaps the least appetizing trick in the stylist’s book, maple syrup is often switched with motor oil when photographing pancakes. According to More, the automobile aid is better suited for the camera, though it has a habit of turning the breakfast item soggy. Luckily, however, fabric protector can stop the oil soaking through. Yuck!
4. Hairspray makes a glass of Coke look more appealing
Merely seeing a frosty glass of Coke can quench our thirst, so it’s only natural that advertisers want to see condensation on their products. But since fake ice is often used in shoots, stylists can’t get a naturally cool appearance. As a result, some – like Denise Stillman – will instead coat glasses in hairspray and Scotchguard to achieve a similar look.
3. Grill marks are made individually
Undoubtedly, meat is at its best when it comes straight off the barbeque. But as most patties in food photoshoots are left undercooked, getting a fresh-from-the-grill look is impossible to achieve naturally. Instead, grill marks are placed on a piece of meat one by one using a heated skewer.
2. Dripping sauces hide a waxy surprise
The piece de resistance in any food photo is the sauce on top, and a perfectly dripped dressing is beyond compare. Yet while real relishes are often used in the studio, they’re often pared with a less than palatable aid. Indeed, candle wax – as revealed by Choice – can help maximize a sauce’s consistency.
1. Sanitary products are a great way to let off steam
During a photo shoot, every effort is made to make a dish look as freshly cooked as possible. And one surefire way to do this is to include steam. Because food is often shot cold, though, stylists like Kaufman turn to a surprising tool – tampons. When placed in water and microwaved, these sanitary devices emit an incredible amount of vapor that blends well with a prepared meal.