McDonald's Photoshopped Burger: Fast Food Marketing Tries and Fails to Project Total Honesty

Last week McDonald’s posted a video ad on YouTube responding to a curious Canadian named Isabel’s question, “Why does your food look different in advertising than what it is in the store?” The spot, which featured an affable McDonald’s PR spokesperson orchestrating an elaborate comparison of the McDonald’s cheeseburger that you receive in the restaurant, and the one that is assembled to be camera-ready for the shoot, quickly racked up page views until, a couple of days later, it had reached 3 million hits. The interest in the video seemed to transcend the original marketing campaign of which it was a part—a new McDonald’s Canadian venture for which the company invites users to post questions on its site in tweet-like format (using fewer than 140 characters), with the promise that all questions, “even the tough ones” will receive responses. 

As a piece of entertainment, the ad is pretty ordinary. We see the PR spokesperson order and receive a burger from a polite woman at a McDonald’s counter. She takes it to the studio where McDonald’s spruces up its sandwiches in preparation for visual consumption. The ad burger is put together so that you can see all the ingredients in it—ones that are, as the video’s host assures us, the same ingredients that you’ll find in the store burger. The sandwich is photographed and the result is lightly photoshopped to remove imperfections in the bun. That’s it—nothing exciting going on style-wise, and nothing particularly revelatory in it about photographing food for advertisements. What’s interesting about the video, and perhaps what viewers responded to, is that McDonald’s actually admitted to a degree of consumer manipulation in an ad as part of a marketing campaign. Why would they do that? 

McDonald’s has been having some trouble in the image department. A few months ago, the company initiated a Twitter campaign, #MeetTheFarmers that quickly became disastrous. After airing a series of dreamy, pastoral commercials featuring the farmers who supply some of the chain’s ingredients, McDonald’s invited people to tweet their responses to the ads. Not sure what reactions McDonald's was expecting out of its customers—who, as the chain's low score (73) and bottom ranking for fast food restaurants on the American Customer Satisfaction Index indicates, are pretty dissatisfied—but it definitely wasn’t stories of vomiting up McDonald’s food, losing 50 pounds after quitting patronizing the restaurant, and links to videos of sick, dirty pigs in gestation crates. One thing was clear: A large, vocal portion of McDonald’s customers had developed a deep suspicion of the company and its food. 

Take two for McDonald’s. If authenticity was the goal of the #MeetTheFarmers campaign, a related idea, transparency, seems to be the new objective of the Canadian one. The questions posted on the site are mostly skeptical in tone with some words and themes in common. One of them is “real.” As in: “What is really in chicken mcnuggets” (Keenan G.); “Do you use the company ‘Real’ so you can say you have ‘100% real beef’?” (Robert T.); “Are your fries made from real potatoes?” (Danny M.); and “if you have so much buying power and ethics why don’t you make real food with real ingredients?” (Squid N.). Kicking the skepticism up a notch, one could ask the question-makers: If you don’t trust McDonald’s food, why would you trust the company to give you real—honestly comprehensive—answers? 

The photo shoot video, for instance, makes it seem as if the company is revealing a secret—that the burgers used in ads are slightly tampered with—while in fact, not telling you anything you don’t already know. We’re not in the early days of advertising; the disclosure that objects and people are burnished for ads shouldn’t shock anyone. It makes more sense to think about Isabel’s question as something that can be interpreted on two levels. There’s the literal one, to which the company conveniently adhered because it allowed them to give a banal response. Then there’s the subtext of the question, similar in nature to that of most of the other questions on the site: Why we should pay to experience what amounts to essence-of-burger rather than a dish prepared from ingredients with traceable, palpable origins?

This is a good question and vital one to the exploration of our eating habits, fast food and otherwise. But we can’t expect McDonald’s, which has a vested interest in keeping its food abstract, and the sources of it obscure, to really delve into the subject. That’s why instead of turning to ads, we need to seek out journalism, consumer reports (maybe even Andy Warhol’s art?) for answers.