Fast food advertising makes the offerings looking luscious and inviting. But what’s served is often a different story. Consumer Reports has gotten so many complaints, it decided to run some side-by-side comparisons.
Secret shoppers were sent with a photo studio in a van to seven fast-food chains, Burger King, Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s Quiznos, Subway, Taco Bell and Wendy’s. They visited several outlets of each to photograph a variety of menu items to compare what you see with what you’re served.
Although sometimes the food came close to the ads, the results for the most part were disappointing. In Consumer Reports’ small sample, the worst offender was Subway sandwiches. According to Subway, foods portrayed in its ads, quote "are made to the exact specifications as those found at our 26,000 restaurants."
So why the big difference between ads and reality? Judi Orlick, a professional food stylist whose job it is to create food fantasies says “When you’re taking that photograph, we want to highlight and feature all of the elements in that sandwich. So what we’re doing is we are building that to play up to the camera, and appeal to your senses. And to make your eyes hungry.”
NBC Investigates Consumer Unit checked out three Texas-based fast food chains. It focused on Pizza Hut based in Plano, Farmers Branch-based Taco Bueno and Whataburger, headquartered on San Antonio.
Like Consumer Reports the NBC Investigates Consumer Unit visited three DFW-area locations of each and took photos immediately after, while the food was piping hot.
At Pizza Hut, the team bought the large stuffed-crust pepperoni pizza at each location. The ones NBC 5 purchased looked similar to the ones on Pizza Hut's website and in its television ads. In the TV ads, the crusts ooze with strings of cheesy goodness. Two of our pizza crusts looked just like the television ads, but in one of the pizzas NBC 5 purchased the string of gooey goodness was a bit less dramatic.
Pizza Hut told us:
"Our team members are trained to make pizzas look and taste great every time. No matter where in the world that pizza is being enjoyed. We want our ads to reflect our product and our product to reflect what is in those ads. We strive for authentic looking product shots. That transparency is important to our customers and us.
We do quality control checks every day. It's vital. If a customer says a product doesn't look like they expected, we try our best to address that concern on an individual basis."
The next stop was Taco Bueno, where NBC 5 ordered the beef combo platter. Ours was a to-go order, but overall the appearance between the ads and the food we got was similar.
The last stop was Whataburger, home of the heavily advertised Monterey Melt. The burger is tempting on Whataburger’s website and in its ads, with two sizzling hot beef patties, colorful peppers and cheese. But the ones NBC 5 got looked different. The sandwiches were not as thick. There was not a generous amount of multi-colored peppers. And in one of the cases it was even hard to see there were two patties.
Rich Scheffler, Vice President of Marketing & Innovation for Whataburger told us:
Is it realistic to expect served food to match its photo?
"When photographing our food, it's important to capture all the ingredients in a particular menu item. In doing so, we sometimes have to make adjustments for all the ingredients to be seen. However, we always photograph using the exact same ingredients and portion sizes as we use when building a sandwich in the restaurant. We have less time to construct each burger in the restaurant because our customers expect quality and taste in a short amount of time, but we ensure that each burger is made with the same quality ingredients based on our procedures."
Does Whataburger train employees to make products as pictured? Does it do quality-control checks?
"Whataburger has very detailed operations manuals, procedures, training programs and quality control measures in place so our team members can build burgers like the Monterey Melt using the optimal combination of ingredients that make it so delicious. Each and every Whataburger is made to order, right when it's ordered, never frozen, and made with 100 percent pure beef."
What happens if a customer complains that food doesn’t look as expected?
"If a customer doesn't feel their dining experience met their expectations, then we make it right."
So keep in mind, when you drive up to the drive-thru, you may not drive away with a picture-perfect product.
The Federal Trade Commission, which regulates advertising, says it hasn’t pursued any cases regarding deceptive photos of food. An FTC spokesperson says actions are unlikely in cases of inexpensive products that consumers can easily evaluate.
Complete Ratings and recommendations on all kinds of products, including appliances, cars & trucks, and electronic gear, are available on Consumer Reports’ website.