LOOKING GOOD: These Red Lobster advertisements are excellent examples of what top-drawer firms and food stylists can do for restaurant advertising—for the right price.
courtesy of The Richards Group
Just across the street from Bob’s Steak and Chop House, at the corner of Lemmon Avenue and Wycliff Avenue in Dallas, bleats an all-words billboard hawking a totally different kind of meat. “Triunfa con Tripas,” the board proclaims, “Triumph with Tripe.” The offal truth: This is a Spanish-language ad from Rumba meats for the intestinal ingredient that’s the basis of menudo, a dish best known as the preeminent Latino hangover cure.

Rumba wisely chose not to illustrate this ad with a photograph of its product. In contrast, Bob’s often uses photos in its advertising, some of which look like they were shot by a busboy with a cellphone. In so doing, the restaurant does a terrible disservice to its excellent food. 

If you’re advertising food and opt to show your product, shouldn’t the food at least look appealing? That seems self-evident, but all too often advertisers like Bob’s end up featuring unappetizing food photography. Sometimes the reason is absence of skill and taste on the part of advertiser and agency; more often, though, somebody’s trying to save a buck.

Good still photography of food is expensive, and good food film is really expensive. According to the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the average 30-­second restaurant TV commercial, not including agency commission, cost $335,000 in 2006, the last year for which figures are available. And the best “tabletop” directors and their crews usually come at premium prices that match their reputations. 

An essential dilemma for all advertisers is the tantalizing knowledge that effective advertising, by definition, is worth the cost. This is particularly true when the advertised product requires special skills. That’s why, when you hire an advertising agency, it’s important to remember that you’re also hiring the subcontractors and specialists they will be working with.

THE TAKEAWAY

1. Good food photography is not as simple as point-and-shoot.
2. There’s a fine line between “creative” and unlawful food advertising...
3. ...but there’s nothing wrong with marbles in the soup.
If you want to understand the essence of the craft of food photography, you need only look at any TV commercial for Red Lobster. These are fully dedicated to making the restaurant’s food appear as delicious as possible. Look a little closer and you’ll discover that they also reveal the tension between artifice and reality, between expertise and the rules. Rules? Yeah, there are rules, which we’ll get to in a minute.

The Red Lobster work, from The Richards Group in Dallas, is also a triumph of consistency. If you were watching with the sound off, it would take you about two seconds to know whose commercial you were seeing and, if you like seafood (and are therefore a Red Lobster prospect), just about that long to start getting hungry. Which is, for me at least, a drawback to Red Lobster’s work: It promises more than the chain delivers. The shellfish used in the commercials starts out identical to that served in the restaurants, but it’s as lovingly styled and shot as any on-screen diva, and the tight camera work maximizes the size of the product. And—just my opinion—it looks far better than it tastes.

“My job is to get people in there. [Red Lobster’s] job is to keep them coming back,” New York food stylist Mary Divett says over the phone in a starchy British accent. Divett, along with commercial director Michael Somoroff, has been shooting Red Lobster spots for more than 18 years through MacGuffin Studios in New York. Atypically, the pair came as a legacy from the client, having worked with Red Lobster through two agencies prior to 2004, when Richards took over the $100 million account. This consistency extends even to the disembodied hands you see flaking the fish and squeezing the lemon. Those belong to hand model Leland Schwantes, another Red Lobster veteran.

“We mostly shoot at high speed, 40 frames per second instead of the usual 24,” says Tim Murphy, a group head at the Richards Group. “Sometimes, we go as high as 500 frames for an ultra-slow-motion effect on lemon squeezes or when a crab is being pulled apart. At that speed, you can see every drop of lemon as it bursts.”

BUBBLES IN THE CHIPS
Before food is shot, it must first be prepared. Enter the food stylist. Dallas-based stylist Brook Leonard says that making food look good takes time. “Even though still shoots are driven more and more by budget, the whole point is to use real food made with real recipes and to show it at its best,” Leonard says. “The client may want 20 shots in a day, but you have to be firm about taking the time to do it right.” According to Divett, “No matter how well it’s lit, if they’re not shooting a good-looking product, it won’t sell.” She adds that the typical Red Lobster commercial requires a full prep day and three shooting days for herself and three assistants. That lobster you’re seeing? More like dozens of identical lobsters shot over that period.

Dallas art director Gae Benson recalls combing through crates of Doritos bags looking for perfect chips. “Chips with bubbles in them are the most desirable,” she says. When she worked on the McDonald’s fast-food account, “The client would bring in their own stylist,” she says. “I remember one counting the sesame seeds on a bun.”

According to Richards Group broadcast producer Paul Nelson, “Not only does the MacGuffin team know exactly how to prep, light, and shoot Red Lobster’s products, over the years they’ve acquired special equipment.” He adds: “Everything is done in camera. There are no special effects, and we color-correct in the normal way—without enhancing the color of the food. We play by the rules.”

Ah yes, the rules. There’s a scientific term called the Observer Effect, which, to oversimplify horribly, means that the act of looking at something can change the object being observed. One prime example: Photographic lights, even the most advanced ones, add heat, and heat can change (or melt) the food being photographed. In their efforts to make food look its best, stylists and photographers must first make it look at least as good as it does in your kitchen. 

“When I worked on Borden, we substituted Crisco for ice cream so it could stand up to the lights,” Benson says. Not very appetizing, perhaps, but necessary—and legal. 

“There are a million nuances, but essentially two rules,” says Stuart Friedel, who specializes in advertising law for the New York firm of Davis & Gilbert. “First, you cannot misrepresent the product. Second, you cannot simulate the product in use without indicating that it is a simulation, which is why you see that word superimposed when commercials show pictures on phones or TVs.”

The marbles in Campbell’s vegetable soup provide an iconic case in point. Just about the time I joined BBDO in New York in 1968, the head of the agency’s art department, testifying to the Federal Trade Commission on a totally unrelated matter, volunteered in effect that, “We want to make the food look as good as it actually is. For example, we put marbles in the soup” to force the vegetables to the top of the bowl. 

“Marbles in the soup?” responded the FTC (where, coincidentally, Friedel was a young staff attorney at the time). No copywriter ever penned a more memorable phrase, and it immediately became a national topic of conversation and editorial invective. Although Campbell’s was not required to run the corrective advertising requested by the FTC, the shrieking caused the chastened company to drop the practice like a red-hot spoon.

“Marbles in the soup.” It sounds like an epic Ralph Nader fantasy of corporate evildoing. In reality, it was merely an attempt to let the camera see the vegetables that were in there but sank to the bottom of the bowl. (Today Campbell’s shows its product in a ladle or in a shallow saucer, shot so tight that you can’t see the edges.)

“Nobody thought they were doing anything wrong,” Friedel says.

I still don’t.

In more than 35 years as a copywriter and creative director in New York and Dallas, Spencer Michlin has created advertising in all media for Pepsi, Frito-Lay, Ford, the brands of Proctor & Gamble, and many more. His work has won virtually every advertising award. He can be reached at [email protected].