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The lure of fake food

November 29, 2007

Advertisers the world over use tricks while taking shots of food. In fact the pictures could well make us feel that there is something wrong with our culinary skills because however much we try, our home-cooked food doesn’t look as good.

The food stylists and photographers together use certain techniques to make food look appetizing. Everything from cotton, foam, cardboard, paper. glue, glycerin, oil, colours, glaze, hair-spray and substitute foods are used. And then there is always Photoshop.

For example, mashed potatoes are often used as a substitute for ice-cream and the syrup over it could be motor oil! Ofcourse if a model is required to eat the stuff, only edible substitutes will be used. If an advertiser wants to use real ice-cream, at times dry ice is used to freeze the ice cream rock hard.

Glycerin/oil is used to put a shine on fruits, vegetables and meat. Glycerin is in fact commonly used on food to make it look wet, fresh and shiny. White glue can be used instead of milk in photographs of cereals, although many top cereal companies today have started to use thick cream instead.

Rotis which looked puffed up are often stuffed with cotton wool and the ‘steam’ is rarely steam, but plain simple smoke. Cigarette smoke blown gently through a straw or at times chemicals (in the form of pellets) that give off smoke are used to imitate steam.

Ice cubes are usually made of acrylic. Fizz can also be created artificially by adding chemicals.

A blowtorch works well for melting butter or creating grill marks on meat, although photographers have used brown shoe polish to create a browning effect!

So is all this is legal you might ask? Well, in the U.S it isn’t. In most countries, including India, it’s legal. Consumers however can always protest against misleading or false advertising. But it is very difficult to prove that doctored photographs are misleading. Advertisers can always claim that they are showing the food as it actually looks. As Dennis Davis, a well-known commercial photographer based in the US says:

Within 1-3 minutes after putting a beautiful plate on a table to shoot, whip cream runs, wet food dries, fried food becomes greasy, ice cream melts, and steaming food doesn’t.

Therefore advertisers feel justified in using substitutes. The company can always say that this is what the food looks like at it’s freshest and best.

It isn’t really that difficult to use actual food…as Davis explains in his article, one can place all the props in advance, use a stand-in dish until all the lighting is done and bring in the real thing at the last minute. Also, digital photography has made shooting food easier (it’s quicker) although many photographers feel that digital photographs do not give the best effect.

All in all it’s best to be wary when one sees mouth-watering dishes in photographs, whether in an advertisement or in a cookery book. The truth is that they aren’t real and if you feel that are far removed from the real thing…complain!

(The pictures have been linked to the originals and are for representational purposes only. I do not claim to know how they were shot)

Related Reading: Celebrity Advertising doesn’t always work
Children are influenced by ads
Self Regulation by Advertisers in India

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23 Comments leave one →
  1. November 29, 2007 11:34 am

    Interesting read… but I think, most people. at some level know that food in photo advertisements or even video ads, are fake.

    Quite enlightening nonetheless.

  2. November 29, 2007 11:44 am

    P.S. Just went through the interview and the comments. I don’t know how you took it, but I found it absolutely hilarious. In fact, I’m still laughing (5 minutes later).

  3. November 29, 2007 11:48 am

    @The Depressed Doormat:

    thanks. true, most people do have some idea about it…and those in the industry would know a lot more actually. Mine is not such a detailed post this time.

    About the interview/comments: Yeah, it did bring a grin to my face while reading it!

  4. November 29, 2007 11:50 am

    Nita: Doctored photos are illegal in advertising in Europe too.

    L’oreal recently found out to its cost. They were using artificially enhanced eyelashes on Penelope Cruz in some telescopic mascara nonsense advertisement and they have had to pull it out and all other ads now carry warnings, saying artificial lashes are used to enhance dramatic effect in the advertisement.

    In food, it is harder to argue. Some people truly can replicate pictures depicted when they present their food; some people truly can mangle a perfectly good dish to look like a dog’s dinner! A lot of food is about presentation – the right sort of container, the right backdrop and the right light.

    In fact this is how before-and-after photos of plastic surgery and fashion makeovers look so different too. In the ‘after’ photo, the model has the essential accessory – a 1000 watt smile which transforms the dreariest of faces, makeover or not.

    Frankly if a consumer expects miracles, I think it is right that he/ she be fooled. Engage brain before putting wallet in gear, should be a generally applicable rule, no?

  5. November 29, 2007 11:56 am

    Thanks Shefaly! I guess one can say that certain type of consumers deserve to be fooled, but…well, not really! Gullible innocents have my complete sympathy!
    You add so much value to my post, why don’t you become a guest blogger here? Well, just a request, only if you want to…a contributer whenever you feel like! I’ll understand if you want to concentrate on your own blog.
    Now I’m off to do some much needed weekly shopping. 😦

  6. November 29, 2007 1:47 pm

    This was informative, Nita. It is interesting that because we human beings are so visual, we tend to go to great lengths to create fool-the-eye facsimiles and resort to fakery to sell many products. Last summer we visited across the river one of the nearby communities, The whole of two blocks in the shopping district had been faked up as a snowy winter scene. Snow on the ground, a skating rink, frost on the windows. It was so eerie walking around in that situation on a hot summer’s day. Since photography and moving films have become so common and technologically sophisticated, techniques for fakery have also been developed, and it’s difficult to tell whether a picture tells a “truth” or whether it is an elaborate fabrication. Many people may still think that photgraphs are truthful, but the margin between reality and fantasy has become so blurred these days. We should be able to trust what our eyes witness, but this is difficult to do unless seeing the “real thing”. We can not ever make the assumption that images are “realistic”. I find that bothersome and rather strange to try and understand. G

  7. November 29, 2007 2:18 pm

    I didn’t know about this, at all. So, thanks, Nita!
    You say: “In fact the pictures could well make us feel that there is something wrong with our culinary skills because however much we try, our home-cooked food doesn’t look as good.”
    Shall I just say, “Speak for yourself!”??

  8. November 29, 2007 6:43 pm

    Suburban, thanks. Ideally yes we should be able to distinguish between reality and fantasy easily but today technology and modernity has made it impossible! The amount today’s kids have to deal with!

    rdoc, thanks.
    I gather you have decent culinary skills. I remember once a remark you made about pasta…so are we going to see some some photos…? No doctoring…!

  9. November 29, 2007 8:49 pm

    Nita: Why photos? Shouldn’t the proof of the pudding/ biryani/ maachher jhol/ rasmalai etc be in the eating? 😉

  10. November 29, 2007 8:57 pm

    Well, doc was saying his food looks good, as good as in glossy mags! About the actual tasting….now that needs some inviting! 🙂 And some bravery on our part… if looks can kill, can you imagine what the eating will do?

  11. November 29, 2007 10:12 pm

    Haha! If looks could kill, well said! 😉

  12. November 29, 2007 10:33 pm

    Now this estrogen-bonded back-n-forth is going above my looks, I mean, my head! I could kill to understand what the two of you are winking about!

  13. ulag permalink
    November 29, 2007 10:35 pm

    Very informative….i remember reading somewhr tht the chocolate coating they show on icecreams or say five-stars and all is usually thick paint…..but i dont know why someone should feel cheated…after all its the taste that matters irrespective of how the food looks!!!

  14. November 29, 2007 10:47 pm

    Rambodoc: We are playing word-games! The only kind which does not involve 22 or so men chasing after one ball… and the kind we always win at.. 🙂

  15. axinia permalink
    November 30, 2007 12:38 am

    Lovely insight, Nita 🙂 I was never thinking about it, however I know quite a lot about photography of models – that is Sooooo much fake…
    So many things are fake in our lives, however it makes us value the true, authentic things even more.

  16. November 30, 2007 12:40 am

    I don’t see any real difference between using fake food and airbrushing models. Advertising is all about appearances and selling.

    Although I don’t know their advertising laws, in Japan wax replicas of food are commonly seen inside and outside of restaurants. The dishes put on the table looked just as good, if not better. Making wax food is an art and it’s quite interesting to see the process.

  17. November 30, 2007 2:16 am

    nice article
    frankly i dont go that much on looks , my best method is to test it out
    in matters of food or life looks can be deceiving 🙂

  18. junezhang permalink
    November 30, 2007 9:05 am

    I come from China, just only then joined this space, could be the friend with me?

  19. November 30, 2007 10:30 am

    Thanks, Ulag, Axinia, Mish Lee, Prax and Junezhang.

    Ulag, ofcourse it’s the taste that matters but when someone is advertising the looks may mislead someone into buying it as it may not be possible to make the food look like that!

    And Mish Lee, you are right, advertising is about faking it to a large extent, but nowadays governments are finding that consumers are not quite aware of this and can be misled and that is why regulations in certain countries.

    Junezhang, welcome. Everyone here is your friend. But to get to know others here you need to comment on specific topics and engage in a discussion about various matters.

  20. vish permalink
    November 30, 2007 12:40 pm


    This reminds me one of your the earlier posts..a pregnant woman (fake!) selling some books and dont you think she has not done anything wrong or different from any of the advertising agencies! and she is not earning in millions! I sympathise with her!

  21. November 30, 2007 1:28 pm


    Did I say that ad agencies are not doing anything wrong? 🙂 In fact if you see most of what I write is from the angle of the consumers and I criticize the big companies the most!
    But I certainly do not sympathise with anyone who perpetuates a fraud, even if the person is poor. My sympathies are with those who toil day and night to make an honest living.

  22. yousefibrahim permalink
    December 27, 2007 5:10 pm

    Do you know what makes Digital Photography the best?
    It’s that you can see the pictures you capture at the same time you take.
    This feature is available in all new digital cameras it’s so great and helps you to determine if you want to keep the picture or capture it again.
    More information More information

  23. Rashminder permalink
    August 12, 2012 3:58 pm

    Hello Nita Ji,

    The truth about puffed Rotis was real eye opener. I was also planning to write an article on something similar how our minds are subtly influenced and what really makes us buy the products. Your blog has inspired me to do that now…I will share the article with you when it is ready. I am going to send your blog link to all my friends to read your posts…we all need to be more aware and awake!!

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