Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Styled to Perfection

Image source here.

Stylists. Computer touch ups. Flawless pictures. No, this doesn’t describe the fashion industry, though it certainly could with perfect images on every billboard and magazine cover, but these stories of perfection don’t just belong in Hollywood. In fact, flawless pictures can be found as close as the nearest kitchen cabinet or refrigerator thanks to the help of food stylists.

A food stylist’s job is to create the perfect image out of food. Whether it is staging mashed potatoes doused with deep brown gravy, or arranging cereal in a bowl, their job is to make the food appealing so that it will find its way off a grocery store shelf and into the home of a consumer.

And just like the perfect person doesn’t exist, neither does the perfect food, which is why food stylists have their own tricks to achieve that flawless image.

As adults, we know that advertising is simply that, advertising only meant to entice, not necessarily to depict the exact product. We expect a little variation in what actually comes out of the box, but what about kids, who expect this perfection they see? The American Psychological Association claims that children under eight years old regard every advertisement as truthful and accurate, as they are unable to critically understand them.

Food styling, as we know it today dates back to around the 1950s were the employers were exclusively women with degrees in home economics. Before the 1950s many food advertisements were hand drawn, so when the trend shifted to photography, many of these women began working for advertising companies where they taught themselves the tools needed in this new profession. As with any new career, these food stylists experienced problems in the beginning, having to deal with everything from refrigerators not opening to hot lights melting ice cream and wilting lettuce. However, these women were able to creatively overcome all of these problems and train the next generation, thus establishing a career choice for decades to come.

Since the 1950s, the industry of food styling has certainly changed. Vegan Soapbox says, “In 1995, the editor of Vegetarian Times magazine explained how the publication always photographs real food from real recipes, despite criticism that the photos weren’t the high quality that readers expected… They take photos without using fake food. They make a recipe and take a photo and that’s that. ‘In fact, when the photo shoot is over we often eat the food.’”

Vegan Soapbox also says that the editor was shocked when she realized the extreme things food stylists did to the food.

Image source here.

One extreme example involves lemonade. Have you ever seen on a box of lemonade packets, a cool glass dripping with condensation? If so, chances are that what you were looking at wasn’t simply made with the packets of powder you’re buying. Many food stylists use fake ice cubes that look real. And as for that condensation that you crave on a hot day? It may very well just be a mixture of water and glycerin, as Kim Kissling explains on her blog, Chef’s Blade. It probably looks real even to adults, so if we are that easily fooled, imagine how realistic these products seem to kids, especially when the allure of prizes accompany some products.

We’ve all seen the kid clinging desperately to a cereal box like Post Fruity Pebbles, begging their mom to buy it, (perhaps simply for the bright colors and prize depicted on the package) promising that they’ll eat it. And we’ve all seen the mom give in, sick of hearing the pleas. In advertising, this is called the “nag factor”. On the Random Facts website, an article detailing 55 random facts about advertising mentions that children ages 12 to 17 will “nag” their parent for a product on average about nine times until the parent finally gives in.

Image source here.

If you were to look at a Post Fruity Pebbles cereal box, you would see a bowl filled with uniform cereal pieces below cartoon characters smiling. While children might assume that this cereal is this exactly like this out of the box, the truth is that a food stylist probably spent hours sifting through many boxes to find those perfect pieces. The characters also help to draw the children in with wide smiles and bright colors.

Another cereal that might fool kids is Cinnamon Toast Crunch. On the older version of the cereal box, a giant spoon is the focal point, filled with flawless cereal squares each having the cinnamon swirls in exactly the same place. The box even claims that this cereal has “a taste you can see.”

Food stylist and blogger, Kristian Walker, goes into detail about how she creates that perfect bowl of cereal that’s so often seen. First, she says, several boxes of cereal are dumped onto flat baking sheetes, and then, tweezers are used, so the pieces don’t become damaged, to pick out the most perfect ones (usually only about 50 to 60 pieces). Then, Crisco is put in the bowl until it is 2/3 full. Using the tweezers again, each cereal piece is individual placed around the dome to create the illusion of a large bowl of cereal. Wild Root Hair Tonic, which simulates milk, fills in any gaps.

Image source here.

Another problem with the cereals mentioned above is that they are loaded with sugar and other unhealthy ingredients. For example, Post Fruity Pebbles cereal contains 12 grams of sugar in ¾ cup of cereal, and according to the American Heart Association website, a child should consume about 25 grams of sugar a day. While the better choices such as a banana or apple sauce may contain more sugar, they also provide more of a variety of healthy nutrients. However, they don’t receive all of the bright colors and advertisement attention that other products do.

Healthier cereals such as Kashi Go Lean Crunch are advertised to appeal to adults. While they feature the perfect pieces like the kids’ cereals, the colors only pertain to the food itself, not necessarily to the addition of cartoon characters. The problem with this is that good eating habits begin in childhood, and if children are more drawn to unhealthy choices when they are young, this habit will most likely continue into adulthood. But the bizarre set ups don’t just stop with cereal.

Image source here.

What about that perfect burger? I bet you, let alone a kid, would never guess that there was glue involved. It wouldn’t be uncommon for a food stylist, armed with a pair of tweezers to individually glue sesame seeds onto the bun for just the right look, says PBS Kids Go, an interactive site aimed at teaching kids about advertising. Now what about the burger itself? Is it edible? Well, that depends on if you don’t mind eating a burger with oil and brown coloring.

If a food stylist is staging a chicken, a sewing kit might come in handy in order to pin the skin extra tight, after washing the food with dishwashing soap, of course. Now, don’t forget the blowtorch and brown coloring, used to give it that extra golden brown glow.

PBS Kids Go is trying to offset kids’ false beliefs that every advertisement is accurate. On the website, there is a classroom activity that teaches kids ways that advertising companies make food look appealing and exactly what a food stylist does. The site includes the question, “What do cotton swabs, tweezers, glue, glycerin, oil and blowtorches have in common?” Answer: “They're all tools used by food stylists to make the food in print ads and TV commercials look appetizing.” It also has the quote from The Guardian, Tricks of the Trade, “I always say my job is to get the customer to buy the product just once — to make them feel like eating. If the food tastes revolting, then that's the manufacturer's problem. Anything is possible — if you have the time. If I was doing a commercial burger shoot, I would ask for around 400 buns and go through them all to find the perfect specimen.”

Image source here.

More good news for educating kids lies in the fact that the food can’t be all fake. “If a photo is destined to become part of an ad campaign, rules require the actual food product to be the “real thing,” explains Haje Jan Kamps in the food blog post The Dirty Tricks of Food Photographers. Kristian Walker, a food stylist and blogger at Right Brain, Left Field agrees, “Barbasol shaving cream holds up better than whipped cream for a photo shoot. Unless the whipped cream product is what is being advertised, that is. Then you have to use the real thing.”

By teaching kids about food stylists, they, as well as adults, can learn the exact tricks used to make food look appealing.

However, being a food stylist isn’t seen as dishonest. Instead, it’s seen as an art form. Above all, it’s about getting that perfect picture, much like any photographer strives for. The only difference is the medium.

On the forum,, a member with the screen name, wynwode, describes it well:
 “It’s a little bit like women who use makeup to achieve an un-made-up look: not to fool, but just to compensate for the difficulties in looking good under less-than-perfect conditions.” 

This relates back to the history of food styling in which the women had to deal with the difficulties of wilting lettuce and melting ice cream. They overcame it by being creative, a main trait for any food stylist.

Image source here.

The career of food styling has come a long way since the 1950s. Once it was a job for artists to draw advertisements, but then quickly became a job for culinary and advertising experts. Throughout the decades, food styling has evolved into an industry of creative techniques used to persuade the consumer. Like any advertising company, the goal of a food stylist is to get the product into the homes of those consumers, and if that means using a little spray deodorant and shoe polish along the way, then so be it. The problem arises when the younger consumers don’t understand the underlying creativity. But with education, such as that being done by PBS Kids Go, those delicious looking pictures can be looked at as simply a way to promote food.

Written by Taylor Neal.
*This blog doesn't own the images above.

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