Consumer Reports Compares Fast Food Ad Photos To Reality

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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.


Be careful what you wish for because you might NOT just get it.


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.


Who wants Vaseline on their Breakfast Sandwich?


Breakfast sandwich
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.


Donna Lafferty barely cooks the beef patty to prevent it from shriveling and looking like it’s been “cremated.”


Red meat
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.


Looks yummy, right? But guess what? It’s not ice cream at all but shortening!


Ice cream
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.


Donna Lafferty paints on fruits to maintain their color after cutting.


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.


Yummy as it looks, but we’ll never dare ourselves to eat it.


Meatball sub
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:


This photo makes you question what McDonald’s employees do with our food. Do they make these blind-folded?


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.


Moving everything into the front of the wrap makes it look it’s packed with ingredients.


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!


This salad wrap looks like it’s been crumpled.


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.


There’s no way we can tell that there’s actually avocado in there.


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.”


We’re pretty sure there should be beef around there, but we’re not seeing it. Do you?


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?


This Wendy’s Dave’s Hot ‘N Juicy 1/4-Pound Single with Cheese is the definition of false advertisement.


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.”


On the left corner, thick and packed ingredients. On the right corner, thick bread and barely any ingredients.


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.

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Spence Cooper
Inquisitive foodie with a professional investigative background and strong belief in the organic farm to table movement. Author of Bad Seeds: A FriendsEAT Guide to GMO's. Buy Now!
Spence Cooper