The third in a series of articles published in Mangrove magazine in 2004. These are not deep in academic research, but a fun read.

Photo chop

Fast-food restaurants promote indigestion in more than one way. Customarily, visual references used to advertise the menu –that is, photographs– are more than often fake. Most of the products showcased as value meals were never photographed as a group, but instead “stitched” from different sources. Not only clients save in buying a soda, sandwich and fries. Owners also play cheap by resorting to digital compositions that ultimately deceive the public. To add to the debate about the nutritional attributes of fast food, we can certify it can also endanger visual health.

Almost insistently, independent images of food and drinks are brought together by a digital click and then copied into a background. As if no one noticed, for example, cookies and muffins are often photographed once, then repeated and flipped on top of each other to create the illusion of plurality. These examples can go unnoticed to the untrained: the inexperienced lack command of shadows, contrast levels and perspective angles that are a basic requisite of photography, but also of Photoshop.

However, a few clues suffice to grasp the situation. On your next visit to a fast food establishment, turn waiting in line into a research project. Look carefully at the french fries, as represented in several value meal pictures. You will notice an identical arrangement in all of them, while sandwich and burger simultaneously appear in a different perspective angle. If the different items had been photographed together – as a true “combo” – food would probably appear more real, maybe truly appetizing. But fast food friends are prone to supersize even their omissions.

In many instances, the cheese, lettuce, bread, and meat images we are presented with are the product of extreme manipulation. Do you like your food when it has been played with? At an advertising agency, I once witnessed a designer “clone” a small hamburger patty into a half-pound version. No wonder the food we get over the counter never looks like those in the pictures. With the money earned by fast food establishments, you would think their owners would go though the trouble and expense of hiring a fast food stylist and a photographer to tend properly to their unique needs and expectations.

In contrast, by being cheap, they add to the already artificial nature of the food they promote, simultaneously diminishing the role of the graphic designer. It is less expensive to pay for a graphic artist to make a change on the food, than actually pay for a photo shoot. Thanks to the capabilities of photo alteration software, photo “chopping” photographs has succeeded at further deceiving the public. In truth, money-making concerns are not to be blamed alone for, unfortunately, most people do not take a good look at what they are about to eat. Be it food, or publicity.

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