Marketing agencies order illusions so ads can serve up `perfect' food

Deceptive cuisine includes glued cereal, marbles in soda cup

November 21, 1999|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

It's a curious world where ice cubes never melt, cereal is served with a drizzle of Elmer's Glue, luscious-looking roast turkey is actually raw in the middle, and the quest for the ultimate hamburger bun sometimes entails examining 200 others first.

On the sets where television and print advertisements are born, these are the ordinary. Here, the advertising industry faces some of its greatest challenges and requires its most creative techniques.

Food advertising in the United States is estimated to be an $11 billion business and is being used to help sell everything from banks to cars to casinos.

Nothing is left to chance in the creation of the advertisements and commercials people see. But often what is really being sold is smoke and mirrors.

"Food is being used more and more across the board for advertising because of its emotional appeal," said Martha Torres, a food stylist in New Orleans. "Certain foods are very evocative, and you use them to sell other things."

When Merchant's National Bank of Mobile, Ala., wanted a new marketing campaign, its advertising firm opted to use an apple pie, believing it represented something both traditional and comforting. The ad agency immediately called in Torres to make the perfect pie.

The commercial showed a golden brown apple pie a la mode, steam rising from its lattice top.

"You see this happy family," Torres said. "The mother comes in holding the pie, and they all look up. It's a warm moment. It's an emotional moment. Pie is a comfort food."

What viewers saw was something quite different from reality. The "pie" was a batch of instant mashed potatoes baked into a crust, with diced-apple baby food spooned into the little squares of the lattice.

The "ice cream" was a mixture of corn syrup, confectioners' sugar and shortening.

Even the steam was fake -- concocted from two chemicals that when combined form a white smoke, giving the illusion that the pie was hot.

Mixing the bank and apple pie makes sense, said Neil M. Alperstein, an associate professor of popular culture at Loyola College. It allows a bank, often viewed as cold and steely, to be associated with feelings of "hearth and home," he said.

"By aligning banking services with apple pie, then the hope is that the message of warm and fuzzy will resonate within the consumer," Alperstein said.

But making sure that message translates properly takes a bit of magic.

More than other types of marketing, illusions are built into food advertising to enhance their appeal. Part of that, industry experts say, is being pragmatic -- food is perishable.

"If you take the major categories of product photography like fashion and cars and cosmetics, food by far has to have the most manipulation and tweaking and fussing to make it look good," said Rob Holmes, a photographer and owner of HolmeZart, a visual design company in Towson. "Food is a living thing, and as it sits on the set, it's dying. We have to make it look incredibly appetizing or it just won't sell. That's where the tricks come in."

Although advertisers are allowed considerable license, there are guidelines prohibiting unfair and deceptive practices.

The Federal Trade Commission once challenged as "false, misleading and deceptive" a commercial for the Campbell's Soup Co. because translucent marbles had been placed in the bottom of a bowl so the vegetables would be forced to the top, making the soup appear heartier.

"You can't use a fake demonstration to make the product do something it doesn't do," said Anne Maher, assistant director in the division of advertising practices for the FTC. "You can't make it possess characteristics it doesn't have."

Preparing a food ad or commercial is far from quick or simple. Hershey Foods Corp., for instance, has a two-page document outlining the exact specs for photographing the Hershey's Kiss, including the exact angle required to capture the little flag that sticks out of the foil wrapper.

The maple syrup that appears in breakfast commercials is usually poured on ice cold to make it flow more slowly.

Elmer's Glue is used in cereal ads because it looks like milk but doesn't make the cereal soggy. Sometimes a base of cream cheese is used to position the flakes in an appealing way before the glue is applied.

And consider all those appealing soft drink ads.

The cup is filled with marbles, topped with a wad of crinkled aluminum foil, then filled with the soft drink, which has been allowed to sit at room temperature for several days so that it has lost its carbonation. It's all designed to make the top of the drink look light and inviting.

Immediately before the shooting, the drink is topped with a whipped cocktail, typically made of dish detergent and mixed with the beverage to provide the desired frothy look -- a look that will last about a minute.

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