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Readers spoke, we listened. After we published a report about supermarket foods that bear no resemblance to the photo on their packaging, some of you said that we had missed a similar annoyance: fast foods that are less attractive in person than in their ads or on menus, billboards, or websites.

“I have often felt that the pictures shown in ads for these companies should … use the actual food they serve,” wrote a disgruntled diner, “not the dolled-up, completely unrealistic fantasies they somehow are permitted to display.” Another reader supplied a vivid description: “You get a green tomato, cheese that is on lopsided, squished; mustard, ketchup all over the wrapping.” In sum, wrote a third, “It’s a pain in my posterior.”

So we sent staffers to seven fast-food chains: Burger King, Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s, Quiznos, Subway, Taco Bell, and Wendy’s. They visited two or three stores per chain, ordered a variety of menu items, photographed them in a van parked outside, then compared the reality with the picture in the website pitch.

Some foods resembled their publicity shots, but at each chain at least one sample of one menu item didn’t. In our small sampling, Subway sandwiches were the worst offenders. That would come as no surprise to some of our 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.”

Rules of the ‘road food’

“The FTC should make them toe the line,” wrote a reader from Newburgh, Ind. Elizabeth Lordan, a press spokeswoman for the Federal Trade Commission, says that 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 the FTC hasn’t pursued any cases alleging that food ads are deceptive based on photos, Lordan said. “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.”

We asked each company several questions about pictures vs. reality: Is it realistic to expect served food to match its photo? Does the company train employees to make products as pictured? Does it do quality-control checks? What happens if a customer complains that food doesn’t look as expected? Only Subway came close to answering any of them. “All Subway menu items portrayed in our commercials and marketing materials are made to the exact specifications as those found at our 26,000+ restaurants,” said Cindy Carrasquilla, a spokeswoman.

McDonald’s: Sausage McMuffin with Egg

Why Your Fast Food Order Doesn't Arrive As Pictured

The ad. It’s a neat stack of cheese, sausage, and egg.
The reality. It’s lopsided and a bit goopy.

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!

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.

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.”

Taco Bell: Gordita Supreme, Beef

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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?

Wendy’s: Dave’s Hot ’N Juicy ¼-pound Single with Cheese

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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.”

Quiznos: The Traditional

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The ad. The loaf is so full you might have to unhinge your jaw.
The reality. Well, at least the bread is thick.

Tricks of the trade: How food gets from blah to beautiful

Donna Lafferty has been preparing mouthwatering meals for more than 30 years, but she isn’t a chef. She’s a food stylist, and it’s her job to make foods look picture-perfect for the camera. “The difference between me and a chef,” says Lafferty, whose long 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.

Not all of them are used in fast-food ads—fake ice cream, for instance, probably wouldn’t appear in menu photos. The restaurants wouldn’t talk to us about their food styling, but McDonald’s Canada produced a video noting that advertised burgers have exactly the same ingredients as those sold in stores; they just undergo lots of primping, including moving contents to the front of the bun, using a syringe to insert strategic dollops of ketchup, and blow-drying the cheese.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Fruit

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.

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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.

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the February 2014 issue of  Consumer Reports magazine. 

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