I’ve been in advertising, in one way or another, for a long time. Decades. I kind of fell into it, first as a direction to follow out of art and design school since I had majored in advertising design. I was a designer/illustrator out of the gate, doing one or the other all the time. Sometimes I did both, and later as a photographer and art director.
I got my feet wet in my first design studio job doing ads for Prell Concentrate shampoo. And I noticed right away, being in the real world, that the thing that you can slide right past—if you’re not really looking at what you’re doing—is that you’re not communicating reality to the consumer. You’re creating the best possible visual of whatever it is you’re presenting—be it a hair product, a car or even a cream pie—and saying to the prospective buyer of that product that this is what it really looks like all the time. And you’re lying.
Suppose you do an ad for a plant nursery, keying on rose bushes. You hire a photographer and head to the site of the grower (after finding and scheduling a day with good natural light) and set about shooting the best rose bushes from a few different angles. Naturally, after assembling the best images, you design the piece in question and it looks great.
Too great. 95% of the customers who order from that nursery will not be able to grow the bushes they get to look anywhere near the images you present in the ad. It’s hopeless. It’s like ordering that Big Mac from the sumptuous photo on the sign at the drive-thru and getting a slightly smashed version with sauce and lettuce running out the side.
Advertising is all about expectation and design perception. And we as designers have already sidestepped past the point of consciously viewing this process as consumers. We are inured to it automatically, like a doctor is to blood. We don’t see or even feel the expectant want of that consumer, because—from the moment we start to conceive the ad in our minds—all we feel is the art of selling. We become automatons to it. And we own it.
The car in that commercial you love to watch onscreen is not how you’ll see it on the road where you live. The car in the TV ad is the only one on the highway with mountains in the distance or a winding country lane. That imagery is what sticks in your consumer’s mind, the romance of it. But putting on your designer’s hat, you know better: that’s an illusion sold to you by the advertiser.
Later on in my career I found myself immersed in package design for a well-known food conglomerate. And one of the things that’s always done in food photography is food styling. (Styling is always a part of commercial photography, but here we’ll concentrate on styling food.)
A food stylist is brought in ahead of the final product shot to prepare the food to look the best way it can possibly be using underlying and out-of-sight artificial things to make the food look fuller, glycerin or clear glazing to make it look wet, and adding more of the included ingredients here and there to make it look more appealing, all the while using tools like tweezers and paint brushes to make things look perfect.
Is this a depiction of reality? Hell, no. Is it even possible to open a box of the food, prepare and heat it according to the package instructions, and have it look even close to that photo on the front of the carton? Sure, maybe in one chance out of a million. But probably never.
Let’s examine the packages above. The lasagna on that plate at left is probably very carefully cooked in pieces, noodles apart from the sauce, then assembled spooning the mozzarella on top, all the while leaving not a speck of food around it. Note the small size of the plate enhancing the portion of the serving.
In the center we have chocolate satin pie, which according to the box is “made from scratch”. Sure it is—by a machine. Chances are the pie shown is a composite of several dozen supplied by the food company to the photographer’s studio, which when cut open, will reveal different consistencies in the texture of the chiffon-like filling. (Design-wise, that strong vertical left by the slicing barely sidesteps lining up with the green panels, but that’s a subject for another column.)
In the package at right, the wrapping of the fork is the styling here, more than likely pinned together beneath and shot from above separately. The sauce near the bottom left on the fork was also probably assembled and enhanced “post-op” in Photoshop. That and almost assuredly they toned up the greens and reds in both shots while they were at it.
I can remember one shoot I was on once where the photographer had a few of us on set ready to drop in Alka-Seltzer tablets into a glass along with another who was pouring Coca-Cola. The idea was to have a prolonged fizz take place while getting in as many shots as possible. And it worked very well, because with all the ice in the glass, the tablets were indistinguishable.
All for appearance, all for the sell. As much as I hate it, I still love it.