Food Commercial Stylists Get Pasta Ready For Its Close-Up

In 1970, the Federal Trade Commission reprimanded Campbell's for adding marbles to the soup in its commercials to make it look richer in vegetables and chucks of meat. The case got a lot of press, forever sullying the reputation of food stylists. Stories of vaseline on red peppers and faux melted cheese made of plastic spread everywhere, encouraging the perception that the camera can't be trusted. Today, there aren't many people who believe that the garlic knots or Caesar salad they see in ads has anything to do with the dish they'll be served when they walk into their local Pizza Hut.

But a fantastic piece on food styling by David Segal of the New York Times indicates that the pendulum may have shifted too far to the either side. After observing several food commercial shoots and talking to what seems like every relevant figure in the industry, Segal discovers that most food shown in ads is actually the food served in restaurants. Advertisers are concerned both about facing a truth-in-advertising suit and about over-selling the deliciousness of their products, setting up customers for disappointment.

That's not to say you're crazy for thinking that food in commercials doesn't look like food in real life. Lighting goes a long way, as do the dozens of takes directors shoot for many commercials. And Segal uncovers tons of arcane tricks and techniques that food stylists use to make otherwise unappetizing food look delicious. (They use spray bottles and industrial paint strippers to make pasta look piping hot, for example.) That said, not every ad is the product of scrupulous attention to advertising ethics. Segal writes:

The difference between enhancement and fakery, though, becomes a little murky, and some directors tiptoe right up to, and well past, the marbles-in-the-soup line. If the tomatoes in a client’s red wine reduction aren’t visible, some fresh ones may be sliced up and tossed in. On rare occasions, the food you see on screen is merely a facsimile of the product.

With that in mind, check out the five most effective food ads from the third quarter to see which companies are doing the best job at the kind of manipulation Segal discusses in his article. Or read the full piece here: "Grilled Chicken, That Temperamental Star."