Food’s next top model

* Image taken from The Artful Dodgers

A picture is worth a thousand words. If you have been to Asia or eat regularly at a Chinese restaurant you might be familiar with the following phenomenon: a menu with a lot of pictures. A lot of fast food restaurants around the world such as Burger King, MacDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts partly copied this strategy. Showing pictures instead of solely words. Imagine standing in line at a fast food restaurant wondering which burger to order. After a few minutes you decided to take the so-called “Fashion Chick Burger”. You based your decision after seeing some images for this new burger. In the following blog I would like to discuss the art of deception in images. You might think, has it not to do with advertising? Well, partly I do agree with you, however often ‘misleading’ images are also used in (news) articles and a lot of other sectors. Furthermore, I would like to show you a few examples of misleading images and how they are used in the news. Since I like food a lot I will be using a lot of examples related to food, so watch out because you might get hungry after reading this. However, the cases I am going to discuss are applicable to a lot of different sectors such as the health or travelling branch.

Convey meaning
According to Hullman and Diakopoulos (2011) there are four factors that determine how readers convey meaning: the data, visual representation, textual annotations and interactivity. In the following blog I would like to focus on visual representations, more specifically photographs. Visualisations can have a very important role in journalistic stories, appealing visualisations and graphs can make readers stop scanning and start reading the article (Garcia, Stark & Miller, 1991).

Misleading visuals
The past decades have witnessed an increased awareness of the power of information visualization to inform the audience (Cairo, 2015). As Cairo stated in his online module: a visualization is created to give readers access and insight to data that they would otherwise not have.

Nowadays several popular methods are known of how visual can be used to deceive. According to Cairo (2015) these methods can be divided into three different categories:

  1. Hiding relevant data to highlight what benefits us
  2. Displaying too much data to obscure reality
  3. Using graphic forms inappropriately

Sometimes you can easily recognize ‘incorrect’ graphs. For instance, a graph where the y-as is truncated or the horizontal axis has inconsistent intervals. In figure 1 two bar charts can be found which show exactly the same data but with very different y-axis. A possible consequence can be that readers have a total different view when seeing the bar chart on the left in comparison to the chart on the right, or vice versa. This is inline with Beattie and Jones (2002) which state that people actually can be mislead very easily with a graph or other visualizations.

(1) Image taken from Gizmodo

Figure 2 shows a pie chart, originating from Fox Chicaco, regarding the candidates for the presidential run of 2012. Did you notice that when you add up the tree slice of the pie you do not have a total of 100%? Now it looks like if the three candidates all have about a third of the support, but when you have a look at the numbers you view might be differently.

(2) Image taken from Gizmodo

With the two examples I just gave I would like to point out that you should not basically trust everything. Visualizations can easily be misleading or edited in a certain way. A lot of papers have been written regarding charts, graphs and diagrams that possibly “lie”. As Cairo (2015) stated, charts, graphs, maps, diagrams and other visuals do not lie. Designers are the ones who are lying. However, in my opinion not a lot of attention is being paid to the images and photographs that are often present in (news) articles. I believe that these can also mislead the audience.

Misleading vs. lying
Which requirements have to be met before you can call something misleading? Let’s first start with a definition of misleading. Misleading can be defined as followed: to give false or misleading information that can lead or guide someone in the wrong direction. According to Cairo (2015) misleading is not the same as lying because a graphic can lead readers astray without the conscious intervention of the designer.

Case study: MacDonald’s
In the following case study I would like to show you how misleading photographs in a certain situation can be. However, this is just an example of how a photograph can influence audience perception. Misleading the audience is something that can be found in a lot of different settings.

Take a look at figure 3. On the picture of the top the burger with cheese, sausage and egg looks delicious, in reality (picture on the bottom) you receive a totally different burger than you might expect. In my opinion it looks lopsided and a bit gopy. Everything on the menu looks beautiful. In reality it might look less attractive. In the case of MacDonald’s, images of food are meant to make customers eyes hungry. It is just a perfect example of how visualizations can mislead the audience. If you know in advance how the burger looks like in reality would you have ordered it?
(3) Image taken from Finances Online

Journalists also utilize misleading photographs in articles. In figure 4 you can see how CBS NEWS uses a photograph of a menu at the MacDonald’s that does not represent the reality. This shows how easy it is to manipulate the reality.

(4) Image taken from CBS News

Food stylists
Did you know that the photos of MacDonald’s are taken in a studio by food stylists? There are a lot of techniques used in order to make visuals more appetizing. For instance, hair spray makes fruits and vegetables appear fresh or a paper towel holds syrup on top of ice cream. You might think is this not only the case with advertisements? Well I can tell you that journalists or photographers also use tricks like these. Instead of a studio they just use Photoshop, in my opinion this has a lot of influence on the reliability of a photograph.

(5) Image taken from Finances Online

Think about the following…
Why is there such a big difference between an images with food and the reality? It has been clear that restaurant meals in general do not look like the photograph. Should this be allowed? Is it misleading? Currently, there is not a lot of regulations yet regarding this issue. In my opinion regulations should be formed regarding this issue. Misleading photographs does not only happen in the food industry. It is also very common in the field of fashion, hotels, toys for children, journalism and a lot more.

The point I would like to make is that it all has to do with the reliability of a visualization and trust. Nowadays, with all the existing technologies you cannot trust anything anymore in my opinion. But is this all ethical? That is the big questionmark. I would like to end my story with a quote from Felix Salom:

“I do not trust a lot of journalists.”


4 gedachten over “Food’s next top model

  1. Nice write-up. Unfortunately as you have highlighted, there are misleading visuals everywhere around us. Therefore each individual has a responsibility to his/herself to discern what has been visually distorted or enhanced from reality. However, I still think that in some certain situations whereby the stakes are high such as in medicine and surgery, regulations should be brought to the fore. In Nigeria hospitals and medical practitioners are not allowed advertisements of any kind because of the sensitive nature of the service they render society. However, the converse holds true in the United States where Doctors, Surgeons and Hospitals are allowed to advertise and solicit customers. This situation have been reported to have some consequences. For instance, cosmetic surgeries have been known to have gone awry after the clinic or hospital involved had promised a lot, only to fail in delivery. generally, advertisements are designed to create awareness, however, adverts are notorious for raising expectations beyond normal. This calls for restraint and responsibility to society.

    Liked by 1 persoon

  2. Nice read! There is a risk of getting mislead by visualizations in newsmedia, true! Blind trust is not the right thing to do, true! But also true is: journalists have to follow an ethic-codex of reporting the truth/as objective as possible and if you don’t follow the most shady news-website ever, you won’t have to mistrust every article, every visulization and every photo. I personally worked at the picturedesk of a newswebsite for a couple of months and (of course depending on the medium you are working for) I can testify, that the urge/need to communicate the right facts is immense in a newsroom. It is extremely embarrising and trust-damaging if reported information turns out to be wrong. This damages the businessmodel of a medium and therefore leads to decreased income. That’s also important, I think 🙂


  3. Thank you for the clear article. I liked your presentation as well. As we discussed in class, I don’t think its bad to be ‘mislead’ in the media or by food pictures. It is just something what you have to experience. You know when you order a big mac, or something else from a picture that is wont look like as the picture. It’s that same that we use our best pictures on social media. I’m not going to post my I-had-one-drink-too-much-sunday-morning-look on Instagram. Are you?


  4. Very nice blog and very nice presentation as well! I really like the example of how food stylists make the food look better. I never imagined that they would use such simple, but very uncommon tricks to make food look better. Personally, I never go to fast food ‘restaurants’ because I think their quality is lacking and I don’t like the food they serve. I think it’s common knowledge that McDonalds for example doesn’t serve the best food but that we accept it because we know it. That may sound a bit strange but what I mean is, that we have low expectations already and that we accept it for that reason. I don’t think this is ethical at all. Like you mention as well, you think that everything we perceive is being adjusted and made to look better. I think so too and this is very sad because it makes us trust the world less. I want to thank you for your blogs, I really enjoyed reading them.


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