Hamburger Series, Part 3: Food Ads

Perception and Deception?

As we continue in our Hamburger series, we find it time to examine perception of this most beloved of American fare.  While our idea of the relative merits and evils of hamburgers may come from nostalgia, memory, or experience, it is quite likely that this perception is informed, at least in part, by food advertising.

So what constitutes an ethical ad?  I asked senior SMU advertising student Cassandra Pankonien her thoughts:

“An ethical advertisement is one that considers its impact on the world in every sense of the word. How it effects consumers’ psyche, whether it perpetuates stereotypes, even the sustainability of product should be considered when creating an ad.”

Further, according to the EAS-405 Standards of Ethical Advertising, all advertising should be “legal, decent, honest, and truthful” and that it should in no way mislead the consumer, especially with regards to “characteristics such as: nature, composition, method and date of manufacture, range of use, efficiency and performance, quantity, commercial or geographical origin or environmental impact.” So how do the elements that make up hamburgers measure up to this standard?  To address this question, let us examine three highly marketable brands whose products are all pertinent to the hamburger and their respective ad campaigns: McDonald’s, Heinz Ketchup, and Kraft American Cheese.

We all know McDonald’s, the quintessential American fast-food chain famed for their quick-and-ready burgers, and have seen their recent ‘What we’re made of campaign” as seen below:

The ad begins with a mother carrying a grocery bag laden with fruits and vegetables and a shot of her grocery list of items that contribute to a well-balanced diet for her family.  The tag line is delivered in a savvy female voice—“We’re as picky about our quality ingredients as you are, because that’s what we’re made of,” accompanied by an exciting montage of fresh ingredients engaging in a sort of animated dance.  So how are we told to perceive McDonald’s as a brand—particularly as a producer of hamburgers—by this ad?  We are told we can trust McDonald’s as much as we would trust our own mother in the preparation of our food and in the selection of the ingredients that go into that food.

This “mom-approved” theme continues into the Kraft American Cheese advertisement:

The ad clearly targets American mothers—everything from the again-savvy voice, the playful allusion to the busy, modern mother’s typical lunch of cold coffee, and the reference to the ritual of preparing lunch for one’s children appeal to mothers.  What is more striking, however, is the ad’s emphasis on the idea that Kraft Singles are wholesome, and that serving such a meal to one’s children makes one a better mother than serving something frozen.  There is dignity in the preparation of a sandwich whose albeit “processed cheese product” is made from real milk.  The insistence on wholesomeness and a return simplicity is a bit ironic in a food whose production could not be less simple.

The Heinz Ketchup slogan appeals to this same sensibility—a desire to return to what is simple and good.  “Grown, not made” and “No one Grows Ketchup like Heinz” have become the calling card for Heinz Ketchup this decade, suggesting that the elusive and vaguely pastoral lifestyle where one can cultivate one’s own food can be attained if one only buys Heinz ketchup.

Unlike the cheese, the ingredients in Heinz are relatively simple—tomato concentrate, distilled vinegar, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, salt, spice, onion powder, and other natural flavors.  But does the ketchup really grow right off the vine?  Is the ad attempting to counter a pre-existing perception of ketchup as processed or bad for one’s health?

The questions raised by these ads are ones to which I have no clear answer, only personal opinion.  What has become clear, however, is that food advertising has become quite clever and indeed convincing, and we must beware.  But for now, it’s lunchtime, perhaps I should whip myself up a wholesome grilled cheese sandwich.  Did I mention it was made with real milk?

Rebecca Quinn, Ethics Design Team

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4 Responses to Hamburger Series, Part 3: Food Ads

  1. Drew Konow says:

    Why must we beware of these clever and convincing advertisements? Because they are slightly deceptive? Visual stimulation captivates out culture – clearly. Deception in advertising and visual culture is not uncommon. Airbrushed foods and airbrushed bodies dominate most magazines and television ads. What does this recreated reality cause? It creates a gap between reality and depiction. Where is the line, however, that creates deception? Admittedly, plastic ketchup bottles don’t grow out of the ground, and Kraft cheeses aren’t only milk. However, the tomatoes grew out of the ground, and there is milk in the cheese. Perhaps advertisements are not as much deceptive in what they mention, as in what they fail to mention, that is, the other ingredients or processes required to provide the finished product. Is that deception? More importantly, is it unethical?

  2. Jordan Wondrack says:

    In response to Drew: while I find merit in much of your argument, I do not understand why the encapsulation of deception in our culture somehow justifies it. Omission can be as deceitful as lying, in my opinion. When it comes to purchasing food in America, we do, however, have a choice. We have the means with which to examine the products we find in grocery stores. Thanks to the FDA and USDA, our food is packaged with both a list of ingredients and a panel of nutritional information. It seems like deception may be morally unsound, but ultimately it is an effective and lawful way of marketing. The key is to outsmart the ads, and to be aware of what we are actually buying.

  3. The ads are just a form of hypnosis. All tv is designed for hypnosis. Thats why I don’t watch tv that much.The tv gets people into a state of hypnosis so they accept suggestions more easily. The suggestions are ads – food ads most of the time. People see the good side of the ads but unable to see the real story behind every product – what it is made of, how it was processed. Go buy this…go do that…wear this…eat that. It tells people what to think…how to live…how to act. Some people are being controlled in mass just by watching tv.

  4. P Hendon says:

    Very good article and I have to agree with your summary, that it is very much deception but it is also clever by the companies to promote their products the way they do. I also believe they put all the emphasis on the wholesome aspects whilst omitting all the negatives but then they would wouldn’t they. I will say I really do think the Heinz ad is really clever. However whilst I accept it is ‘just advertising’ and I may eat a burger about once a month (I don’t like ketchup, I don’t mind processed cheese but prefer ‘normal’ cheese) I do not believe it is part of a balanced diet. I believe that the public at large have forgotten the fundamentals of good eating and living these days it is all about ‘convenience foods’. Until the average person is re-educated about the need to eat less processed and to eat more simpler, fresh foodstuff then the health of our nations will suffer. If we are brutally honest a poor diet and obesity kills. Will it go the way of the tobacco industry and the litigation caused, whereby ‘you didn’t tell me your product was bad for me so I am going to sue you’ before anything changes.

    P Hendon
    malmaison liverpool

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