Food Advertising: Empire of Illusion

Food Advertising: Empire of Illusion

Qingyi Yu

CAS 268 (ENG 267 / FMS 275): Food, Media, and Literature

“For the truth is, that life on the face of it is a chaos in which one finds oneself lost. The individual suspects as much but is terrified to encounter this frightening reality face to face, and so attempts to conceal it by drawing a curtain of fantasy over it, behind which he can make believe that everything is clear.” – José Ortega y Gasset

         “Farmers hoeing at noon, sweat down the field soon. Who knows food on a tray, thanks to their toiling day?” It is a famous Chinese ancient poem I have learnt about since little, that reveals the hardship of farmers and the preciousness of food. Although we are still using the same language to educate our generation about food, the landscape is completely changed. In the US, the average share of per capita income spent on food – proportional to our income – dramatically fell from 17.5 percent in 1960 to 9.6 percent in 2007. Thanks to the efficiency of industrial agriculture, along with the consistent shrinking of food prices adjusted for inflation, today we are purchasing more food for less money.  We are the blessed generation that live in the promised abundance, that no longer worry about the food shortage. The blooming technology and economy now enable us to pursue a life with more quality and more happiness. We don’t need to eat to survive, we are tasting the feelings, as the Coca Cola advertisement says. With a bottle, we are loved, and with a taste, we taste the friendship. I am so inspired by this warming short movie that I almost want to grab a bottle and feel the kindness in humanity.

         But wait a second, how the hell does Coca Cola has anything to do with love? And when does this detrimental soda becomes a way to show the care and share the happiness? If we take a deeper look into the ad and bring out more consciousness, we will realize that it is a typical lie in consumer culture, wrapped in the cliché we ask for. The illusion of happiness, constructing through massive manipulation in every advertisement, is only in service to the branding and sale. They are the unkind packaged in kindness, the capitalism with a communism appearance. Knowing the magical effect of the advertising, food industry invests huge amounts of money on advertising each year, especially the fast food industry. In 2013, a totally ad expenditure amounted to 136.53 million dollars on food and beverage, 1.68 billion on prepared foods, and 1.98 billion on confectionery and snacks is spent. Of all the brands advertised in the United States in 2013, McDonald’s was ranked fifth in terms of advertising spending with a fee of 976 million U.S. dollars, and Subway was ranked 21st with a total ad spend of 514 million U.S. dollars. Another reason that why food industry is investing more and more money on advertising is because of the “happy” result of inflation. It needs advertisements to seduce people to consume more food than needed, or should have, to use the human body as a spatial fix.

         The overexposure to the food advertisements, disturbing with our natural appetite, can be a key attribute to the epidemic of obesity and other public health concerns in the US. More importantly, the way the companies advertise, including the use of photography, graphic design (packaging), wording, certification labels and etc, can be very misleading, and the companies meant to. They deceive us into the false belief in abundance and quality. The advertising campaign between corporations confuses us and makes it extremely hard to recognize the healthy and unhealthy food. Even those who are aware of the importance of a healthy diet can be tricked into eating junks. Moreover, the ads also help food industry to hide its dark reality behind a curtain of fantasy, that feeds into the consumer’s’ comfort.

         As the agency to sell food commodities,  grocery stores play an important role in helping the construction of this illusion. Most of the time, they are in alliance with big corporations due to the economic benefit.  Through well-designed display and language, and highly targeted selling strategies, they create a palace with “diversity” that seemingly in favor of the consumers.

         Unfortunately, the fantasy will not become the truth simply by wishing it to be, and the problems can not be solved by keeping them out of the sight. Food advertising, as the other industry in consumer culture, has created an empire of illusion in front of the truth that makes us out of touch with the reality. The perfected pictures and the fake lifestyle in ads and other commercials, that promise us quality, happiness and love, is slyly destroying our lives.

Food Porn For Sale

        Food porn is now everywhere in our media, including television, websites, and social media. Food is becoming more about visual stimuli and gustatory entertainment than about nurturance and sustainability.We happily participated in this visual feast, in the belief that it is a blessing from the advanced modernity. However, it is actually nothing more than a fake substance designed to fill the hollow within self-value.

         Those glorious photographs are usually highly manipulated and quite deceptive. Many company even use completely inedible materials in ads to induce the viewer’s appetite. For example, glue is used instead of real milk to enhance the color and texture of the liquid. Fabric protectors are sprayed on pancakes so that they do not absorb the syrup while thephotography. Even the syrup on pancakes is actually oil, because it looks so much better than actual syrup. Also, plates always displayed with careful manipulation. Burgers are held up using cotton balls, toothpicks and cardboard for photography. The truth behind food advertisements may be astonishing, but most of us surely knows the manipulating aspect in our own food porn faddism that we participate in daily in the massive social media. We are fostered in this illusionary environment, feeling betrayed and frustrated. Ironically,  the insecurity and the frustration result in a self-perpetuating cycle that further drives the hunger away from reality, so we end up help to consolidate those illusions. We try not to commit it in hope it can become the reality in our heads. The ego may be deceived by the constructed images, but the authentic self would not.

         The prevailing food porn culture enables food industry to explore a new space and a more crafty way to advertise their products. Company and restaurants can collaborate with the food porn websites and evaluating and rating apps to promote their products. Many restaurants encouraged people to rate 5 stars on yelp, or post pictures of their products on instagram with hashtags to get discounts. They can also utilize celebrities to post pictures that includes their products, and mentioning some appealing aspects. Those techniques lead our food system into a deeper illusion because they look so natural and genuine that we do not know, or hard to tell, they are actually advertisements.. However, it is us who have created an environment in which those lies are able to survive.

         The excessive visual stimuli messes with our natural appetite and increases our desire for food, inducing us to consume more unnecessary edible commodities, which in the long run only bring us more unhappiness, like obesity and depression.

Language for Sale

         No matter on the packages of the products, in the television ads, or within the food labeling system, there are massive wordplayings conducte. They are usually built upon the illusioned consumer value and belief, and then contribute to more general and universal false acknowledgments.  

         The health claims on the packages, seemly in protection of the consumer rights, becomes informational abuses towards consumers. They include emphasis on specific macronutrients and micronutrients (especially on fat, carbs, protein, and vitamins, and also calories), the natural aspect (such as no artificial flavor), labels (such as nature, organic, grass-fed), the underline of specific ingredients, and etc.

         For example, the highly processed and sugar concentrated breakfast cereal, is usually advertised as a high fiber and low fat healthy food with multiple beneficial nutrients. They emphasize the insignificant quantity of the fiber includes and the fat reduced, taking advantages of the consumers’ lack of knowledge. And the beneficial nutrients are mostly fortified into the product after processing, and will greatly affect the result of absorption. It is using the same technology that created the problem of malnutrition from the first place to pretend to solve the problem. For the vegetables, that is naturally full of fiber and almost contains zero fat, and carry abundant of nutrients, we rarely see any claim emphasizing those aspects. It is only because that the unnatural processed food is now becoming the norm of our daily diet, that food products today can fake the health by packaging in the misleading nutritional facts.

          The emphasis on specific nutritional aspect, such as low carb and high protein, is often playing with people’s misconception on nutrition. Not all the fats, carbs and sugars are bad and they are also essential in our diet. Moreover, if one is following a standard American diet, he or she is very likely already on a protein binge. However, the former three nutrients are usually conceived as impedimental to the ideal body type due to today’s social norm, they become the “bad” and “unhealthy” things we ought to avoid. Those misconceptions reveals that we now pays more attention on the appearance than the true intrinsic value. We draw a direct link between standard beauty with goodness and health, and surprisingly deeply buy into the apparent illusion we create ourselves. On the other hand, the repetition of the false nutritional belief, in food advertisements, feeds back into a further misconception.

         The emphasis on the convenience and some certain ingredients in advertising languages, is a manifestation of the efficiency-oriented and magical-thinking culture. They either convince us that we can save our time and energy through the the help providing, or comfort us that all the bad effects can be eliminated through some magical components. The externality and the hidden costs are ignored, for the fact that those convenience food are almost always detrimental for the physical and mental health. A healthy body is built upon everyday consumption of real food, rather than looking upon a small category of super elements. As a result, such language sometimes deceives people into eating even more junks and get more sick.

         Other cunning deceptive language is also frequently used in advertisements to elude people to believe in certain quality of the food products without directing addressing it, in another word, lying. The repetitive line of “part of this complete/balanced breakfast” in breakfast cereal commercials is a classic example of the ambiguity marketing language. The advertiser anticipate the audience to form an unconscious link between a complete and balanced breakfast with cereal. Also, like those claims say that certain nutrients may reduce the  risk level for certain diseases does not really state any relationship between the actually products and the diseases.

         Labels are now a big part of food packaging, and itself is becoming an important advertising language, with seemly more authorities and reliabilities. It has surely helped us to recognize vegan/vegetarian-friendly, allergy-friendly and healthy products more easily at some level. However, the phrasing of the regulation from USDA leave spaces for companies to mislead customers in a sneaky way. Moreover, as the text suggests, without sufficient background knowledge, customers are likely to assume the products to be superior if an ad goes into trouble of mentioning something specific. The same thing happens here. When shopping at grocery store, we may choose the ones with labels on them over others in the same category, assuming they are healthier and more environmentally friendly, which is not necessary the case. Some labels, are simply friendly marks for people with certain conditions. For example, the overused gluten-free label helped its market exploded. Many people today conceive gluten-free diet to be healthier, but in fact it is only essential for people with celiac disease.

         For food with “natural” label, FDA claims that they have not developed a definition for use of the term, but the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. This means they may contain antibiotics, growth hormones, and other similar chemicals through the process. However, due to a recent nationally representative Consumer Reports survey, more than half of consumers choose products with a “natural” label because they believe that they are produced without genetically modified organism, hormones, pesticides, or artificial ingredients.  Moreover, different than we would assume, there are no difference between the regulation of “natural” and “all-natural”.

         “Organic” label is probably currently the most credible one among all. The USDA regulates organic product labels much more thoroughly than they do other product labels and, hence, foods labeled “organic” are more likely to actually be organic. Foods labeled “organic” must consist of at least 95% organically produced ingredients and the other 5% must be approved on the National List provided by the USDA. They can not be produced with any conventional pesticides, forbidden synthetic fertilizers, bioengineering, etc. Nevertheless, as some experts suggest, organic pesticides pose the same health risks as non-organic ones. In general, organic plant products are believed to be healthier than the rest.

         However, when comes to animal related labels, all of them become much less meaningful, including the “organic” label. They are usually minimally regulated, and thus simply becomes a greenwashing act for many corporations. If we look into the framing of organic definition for animal product, we can see a lot of word playing there. First,  animals should be raised on organic feed: crops raised without most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. But how is the “most” defined? Second, they should be traced through their life, which probably means leaving a paper trail. Third, animals should not be fed antibiotics or growth hormones. Fourth, animals should have access to the outdoors. The last one is the most unreliable and fraudulent one. It means nothing more than having the opportunity to look outside through a screened window, and many cooperation are sneakily using this label to greenwash their products. Other animal related minimally regulated includes “free range / cage free”, and “grass fed”.

Lifestyle for Sale

         Most of the ads today is highly targeted. They are in the competition of the sale of feelings, and serve as a validation for the illusory hierarchy.  We can tell from the field trip to different grocery stores that they use completely different languages, aesthetics and other approaches to appeal certain groups of people.

         The Tops Friendly Market, surrounded by a relatively poor neighborhood, is repetitively stating the low prices. It is selling the feeling of savings, even though we are not able to evaluate the actual value of the product. What it matters in the marketing is not how much people actually save, but how much do they feel they save. The companies sometimes lift the original prices than put on the on sale labels to lure consumers to purchase the item immediately. It a mean to use people as an outlet for the inflation.  In this sense, the minorities that live in a life with the anxiety of savings, are once again abused and exploited.


         Wegmans, as Rochester residents’ favorite grocery store,  is the master of advertising. Just like most popular culture, it targeted to a variety people from different classes. The most prominent feature is the abundant and the fancy appearance. Everything is well designed and manipulated to satisfy the consumers’ expectation. Within the bakery section, the display of the cake part has a fancy looking, while the bread part appears to be simple and natural. At the entrance, there is an advertisement says “Rochester’s favorite local cheese” with the typical smiling farmers’ image on it. It turns out to be a form of “greenwashing” since the local ones only occupy a tiny corner of the all products, and yet Wegmans is underlying this feature and hoping customers can apply the impression to the overall store. The first sight is always the fruit and vegetable section and a corner of floral selling. It sends you the message that Wegmans is a natural emphasized grocery, which is not actually the case. It is a typical corporation for mass production and a fantasy island that hides the reality, applying the similar techniques of Disney and Hollywood.

        Like the Coca Cola ads mentioned at the beginning, now advertiser try to construct a completely illusory and hollow relationship between products and feelings. Such illusion pushes the real problems of people’s relationship, self esteem or social inequality out of the sight. It provides the false promises that if you purchases certain products, you are taking care of yourselves, and that you can be loved and confident. Like fancy restaurants created the illusion of being among the top. In a sense, it is we paying the company to deceive ourself as a mean to suspense reality.




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