Mixed Signals: McDonald's, Photoshop, and Why We're Lovin' It

Mixed Signals is Erin Straza’s weekly musing about marketing miscellany in advertising, branding, and messaging.

Psst. Have you heard?

McDonald’s is coming clean.

That delicious burger you see in its ads? The one with the cheese melting and the mustard and ketchup dripping?

It’s not your average McDonald’s hamburger. All the components are the same—bun, burger, condiments—but the execution of a drive-through burger is nothing compared to the rigorous assembly of a burger heading to advertising fame. The burgers that make it big have been specially groomed, prepped, and staged.

That’s right—staged. Food stylists have doted on it. Put it’s best side forward. Shined the light at the right angle. Used a mini-torch to melt the cheese a bit more. Applied ketchup and mustard with syringes. But even all this work isn’t enough to make it ad-ready. Next comes the Photoshop enhancements, where the bun’s imperfections are smoothed and the pickle gets a high gloss shine. McDonald’s explains this intensive process for us here:

One analyst decries that with this detailed video describing the photo shoot process, McDonald’s has destroyed the illusion of advertising. But after the many previous advertising debacles resulting from manipulated imagery in almost every sector, I can’t agree that McDonald’s has brought the whole system down. We have long known what the advertising machine would churn out: images of uber-perfection to create an impossible reality from which we measure our happiness.

We want bodies without jiggle and eyelashes like feathers and burgers with flawlessly placed onions.

It’s not a real world, but we want it, because we’ve seen it with our own two eyes. And this allure keeps us ever seeking that magical outfit, beauty product, and comfort food.

This is nothing new, really. The first campaign to play on the human state of discontent had Adam and Eve as the focus. The serpent nudged them to try the one fruit they were missing out on. He painted a tempting picture of uber-perfection, a world in which Adam and Eve would be like God. He told them they would be happier if they consumed the fruit that was a true delight to the eyes.

That’s how these campaigns work. We see images that are clearly manipulated, but our hearts are drawn to the impossibility of that experience. So we keep seeking its fulfillment, sampling one product after another.

Has McDonald’s destroyed the illusion of advertising? I don’t think so. We believe so strongly in the illusion we won’t abandon these products, even when they don’t deliver.

The illusion of advertising works, because we want it to.

About Erin Straza

Erin Straza (Associate Editor) is a freelance writer, editor, and marketing communications consultant, helping organizations tell their stories in authentic and compelling ways. After a stint in corporate marketing while earning her MBA, Erin taught marketing communications at Illinois Wesleyan and Illinois State. She is crafting her first book, writing from the Illinois flatlands where she lives with her husband, Mike. Find more from Erin at her blog Filling My Patch of Sky and on Twitter @ErinStraza.
E-mail: erin [at] FillingMyPatchOfSky [dot] com
Blog: Filling My Patch of Sky
Twitter: @ErinStraza

  • Geoffrey R.


    An interesting take, as always. I guess the video makes it “news,” but I never knew food stylists were a big state secret (but maybe that’s just because I watch a lot of Food Network and listen to NPR).

    I’ve always looked on the stylized food in advertisements more as being like the Platonic ideal of the product. They show you the “BIG MAC” of the ideal world, rather than generic shadowy “big macs” of the real world. But since your ability to experience BIG MAC is limited, you go in expecting the big mac. In other words, in the ads, all the elements of a real product are in place, just stylized and made pristine–this shows me the core of what the product is meant to be. But since I know that nothing in reality (especially fast food reality) is perfect, I know not to expect the ideal.

    Pink slime, on the other hand, is a different story…

    Geoffrey R.