You can't photograph your cake and eat it too...

Image-manipulation and photo touch-up – these are common processes in the world of fashion photography, and generally accepted because the genre itself is one of dreams and fantasy. But food is different. Food is a necessity of life and an ingredient of good health, not just an indulgence. Our food choices are influenced by our trust in a product. And this is where we are so badly abused by the food industry, with an extreme form of image falsification that is manipulative and deeply unethical. Welcome to the World of Food Styling.

What is food styling?

In its simplest definition, it is the art of creating attractive, appealing and enticing photographs of food for the use of advertisements, packages, menus and cookbooks. Professional photographers working with food will either use a food stylist or do the job themselves.

“I can’t believe my eyes!”

 . . and you shouldn’t! In the world of advertising and packaging, many food images are not what they seem. And many are not even edible, using non-food substances to create artificial effects. For example:

maple syrup – the delicious, luminescent and sticky syrup perfect for pancakes; taking good photos takes time, and the syrup quickly turns the pancake into a soggy mess. So food stylists substitute this unphotogenic substance with motor oil, using spray-on fabric protector to make it stick to the pancake’s surface during the shoot.

freshly picked grapes? Nope – just old grapes with a coating of spray deodorant. A newly baked cake? Again, no, just a clever trick with hairspray. Yet another artificial way to convey ‘freshness’ is with glycerine or white glue (the glue has many uses, including fixing collapsing food and representing delicious thick milk on breakfast cereal).

Fancy that burger? Even when the bun’s covered with glue to keep the seeds in place? Famous food stylist, culinary educator, author and consultant Delores Custer, has even been quoted as saying, "The nice thing about Elmer's is it dries clear." If glue doesn’t work, the alternative is Vaseline or a similar petroleum jelly.

Appetising isn’t it? I've written in more depth about the dirty tricks of food photographers in the past - it may be worth a read!

(Don’t) try this at home...

So, the food images we see are not always what they seem. But the deceit goes even further when we are inspired to create a dish at home. Recipe books and food packaging should provide consumers with a realistic image of how their food will look once out of the oven or plastic wrapper.  The average cook might not expect to deliver cookbook quality looks at the dinner table.

But even so, people who follow the recipe step by step, breath by breath, don’t realise that the real reason they can’t recreate what they see is because it is not actually food. It is not the collection of crafted ingredients it pretends to be. The image has been manipulated and manicured even more than a fashion photo.

Unethical business practices and exploiting the innocent?

Corporations and cookbook writers hire food stylists with the specific intention of making their product more desirable than it actually is, simply to make money. This is dishonest advertising.

The County of Los Angeles Department of Consumer Affairs defines a false advertisement as “untrue or misleading information given to [consumers] to get [them] to buy something, or to come visit their store." Food styling is guilty of this. Also, the American Association of Advertising Agencies declares that its members will not “create advertising that contains false or misleading statements or exaggerations, visual or verbal." Food styling is very clearly initiating a false and misleading visual statement.

Food styling also contravenes marketing ethics. The American Marketing Association Statement of Ethics states that advertisements must "represent products in a clear way in selling, advertising and other forms of communication; this includes the avoidance of false, misleading and deceptive promotion."

Against each of these standards, food styling breaks the codes by using false advertising and presenting misleading information.

Using chemical and inedible products, illusionary tricks and photo editing software hurts the innocent, in particular children and their parents. Naive children are coaxed into buying products they would otherwise have no interest in. Parents must either give in or face the dilemma of confrontation. And if they give in, just as with glossy cookbooks that never ‘deliver’, these irresistibly presented products  are never actually what they seem;  they provide false hope and, later, feelings of disappointment. Exploiting the weak or vulnerable in this way is completely unethical and immoral.

And the final word...

... goes to a philosopher, the nineteenth century British philosopher, John S. Mill, famous for his stance on utilitarianism: "The happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct, is not the agent's own happiness, but that of all concerned.” Mill clearly believes that it is not the individual's own needs that should take priority, but rather the larger group's satisfaction. Also, the biblical message to do as you would be done by is intrinsic to the spirit of the ethics of utility.

Compared to other forms of image-based promotion, food styling can be a practice of deceit leading to nothing more than the practitioner’s satisfaction at the cost of the helpless recipient’s misery and disappointment.  This is an ethical issue that needs to be further looked into and learned about by greater society. While it is indeed a creative and fascinating process, it is one that the people, both adults and kids alike, should be taught and made aware of. Until then, it will remain exceedingly unethical.

This article was based on an academic essay titled "Ethics of Food Styling", written by Allyson Schwartz for a coursework assignment in late 2010. It was edited by Rupert Waddington and myself for publishing here on Pixiq.

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