That Time Campbell’s Put Marbles in Their Soup

In the world of food advertising there’s a concept known as “propping” which is industry jargon for making the food look as good as possible via sometimes rather, shall we say, unusual means. While proper lighting and setting are a given, a good food stylist, which is a thing by the way, will do much more than that. For example, it’s common practice when shooting meat to lightly spray it with oil to give the illusion that it’s plump, juicy and fresh from the oven when in reality it may be several days old and already beginning to rot when an advertising picture is taken of it. For example, consider this quote from professional food stylist Emma Feigenbaum about a Thanksgiving shoot she did-

I was doing a Thanksgiving dinner shoot for a clothing advertisement and we made three turkeys at the beginning of the four-day shoot. We had to leave them outside, and every day that they didn’t use them, we had to juice them back up and make the turkeys look like new. When they finally put the turkeys on the table, they smelled so bad that everyone was gagging…

Propping is an open secret in the advertising industry and the food stylists responsible for the glamour shots you see of everything from Big Macs to bottles of beer are in high demand.

Now, your first instinct might be to say that this all sounds mightily deceptive and, in fact, it can be, which is part of why professional food stylists can command such a premium for their services. Paying someone who knows how close to the knuckle they can get without technically breaking any rules and getting the company they contracted with in trouble, even when costing obscene prices for the work actually done, is a hell of a lot cheaper than facing a massive lawsuit or the FTC coming down hard on your company, as we’ll get into shortly.

For now, if you’re wondering, the American Association of Advertising Agencies notes that a typical 30 second commercial shoot for a restaurant costs on average around a half a million dollars. Using this same price per 30 seconds for a two hour movie, that’s a budget of about $120 million, which while cheap for certain types of huge blockbuster movies with massive amounts of special effects, is pretty expensive on the whole, especially when you consider the crew doing a restaurant commercial does not need extensive elaborate sets, travel budgets, massive crews and support staff, food budgets spanning months of a shoot to feed everyone, advanced special effects, etc. etc.

As for the top food stylist crews in the business, they tend to earn much more than that for the same shoot and, in all cases, pro food stylists pay attention to a lot of tiny details pretty much everyone who watches the commercial will completely miss. For example, Gae Benson notes for Doritos commercials they would go through numerous bags to collect the perfect set of chips to shoot. When filming for McDonald’s, they literally count the sesame seeds on various buns to find one with whatever amount and distribution was considered optimal for the shots they were taking. (You earn that money Benson.)

Going back to the rules and these pro food stylists that are so good at stopping just short of the line that would get the company that hired them in trouble, according to an expert in advertising law called Stuart Friedel, when it comes to advertising food there are, to quote “a million nuances, but essentially two rules”- the most pertinent to today’s topic being that “you cannot misrepresent the product”.  What constitutes misrepresentation, of course, is a matter of some debate and more of a shades of grey type thing, rather than black and white.

For the curious, the second rule is that you “cannot simulate the product in use without indicating that it is a simulation” which, according to Friedel, is why when you watch ads about TVs and the like there’s almost always a disclaimer saying that the image on screen is a simulation.

In specific regards to food, stylists and prop masters dressing food for ads have to be exceptionally careful to not do anything to the food that could be construed as a deliberate attempt to “misrepresent” it. Even still, there’s a lot a particularly savvy photographer can do to make food look good without crossing the line.

For example, let’s say you’re taking a picture of a burrito and the tortilla keeps flopping around. Replacing the tortilla with a piece of stiff fabric is illegal and taking the time to perfectly wrap a burrito so it doesn’t flop is just too much effort for a small crew only getting paid a half a million dollars to do a few day shoot and some pre and post production work. However, gluing the tortilla shut isn’t illegal at all and it’s workarounds like this that are why food stylists get paid the big bucks.

Of course, as bad as spraying four day old meat with oil and gluing burritos together might sound, back in the 1960s the world of food advertising was basically the wild west. Tricks like using motor oil in lieu of syrup were commonplace and completely legal. In fact, in many cases stuff like this was preferable to using the real thing because it lasted longer and was easier to shoot. Another trick is to use mash potatoes covered in resin or Crisco as a stand-in for ice cream. After all, ice cream melts pretty quick, particularly when subjected to being closely lit, and photo shoots sometimes last a long time. Using the real product simply was much harder than faking it, especially when you need a consistent look from shot to shot.

Speaking of shoots lasting a long time, if you want to make a drink look cold, according to the aforementioned Feigenbaum, “When I’m making cocktails or other drinks for a shoot, I just spray on this glycerin mix and it suddenly looks cold… Plus, it doesn’t go away and won’t leave fingerprints.”

Or if you’d like some gooey melted chocolate, using actual melted chocolate is going to be a pain to shoot and keep consistent. Instead, as Steve Giralt notes, “We sometimes use fake chocolate… this [borax] gel that’s the same stuff they use to make slime. You add brown food coloring to it and cocoa powder and it looks just like chocolate, except you don’t have to worry about it cooling down or melting. It’ll just stay the perfect consistency.”

So what does Campbell’s Soup have to do with all of this? Well, in 1968 a New York based advertising company called BBDO were contracted by the company to create an ad for their new Chicken & Stars soup. While shooting the ad, BBDO art director Robson Ballantine noticed that the vegetables in the soup kept sinking to the bottom of the bowl, which he felt was ruining the shot. After trying and failing to pour the soup in a way that would correct this, Ballantine simply put clear glass marbles in the bottom of the bowl- the idea being in this case that the chunks of vegetable would sit atop the marbles and remain visible.

Initially nobody was all that bothered by this because, as noted, it was standard practise in the industry at the time to do stuff like this. And it’s not like this was even close to the worst thing advertisers at the time were doing.

So why did this spur a massive shift in law concerning advertising? Well, there’s an old saying in the advertising industry that the only person who pays as much attention to your ads as you do is your competition. Something the Campbell’s Soup Company learned firsthand when H.J. Heinz company, known for their many sauces, but also a maker of soups, filed a complaint with the FTC about Campbell’s putting marbles in their soup to make it look like it contained more ingredients than it did. Now, Heinz themselves of course allegedly did similar things in shooting their own various product, but that was hardly the point. Mostly, this seemed a way to jab at their rival.  Heinz reportedly also sent the FTC a bunch of corroborating evidence against Campbell’s Soup during the subsequent probe.

Campbell’s Soup were understandably annoyed about this and a few years later returned the favor by kindly alerting the FTC to the fact that Heinz’s ketchup contained mold apparently. In 1979, Heinz jabbed back using the age old practice, “if you can’t beat ’em, sue ’em”, suing Campbell for having a monopoly on canned soup.  At the time, Campbell’s had an 85% market share on canned soup.

In any event, going back to the whole marbles thing, during a meeting with the United States Federal Trade Commission, the head of BBDO’s art department ultimately explained to them that, “We want to make the food look as good as it actually is. For example, we put marbles in the soup to force the vegetables to the top of the bowl…”

A statement that prompted a stunned FTC official to ask incredulously, “Marbles in the soup?”  Needless to say this wasn’t going well already.

Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that throughout the case, Campbell’s Soup and BBDO maintained that they’d done nothing wrong. A sentiment echoed by many others in the industry who didn’t work for Heinz. As E.E. Norris noted wryly, “The only law we thought we were breaking was the law of gravity—it all seemed perfectly legitimate to us.”

Vincent Meehan who was also involved in this particular marbles debacle further went on, “What we did with the marbles was purely and simply to prop the ingredients. We did not add ingredients to make the soup have more ingredients than it was supposed to have.”

Of course, one might argue that it did seem to imply there were more ingredients, so much so that they brimmed to the top, a position that seemingly the FTC agreed with.

Nevertheless, Campbell’s Soup fought the case valiantly in court, pointing out a reasonably good counter argument – that the act of putting marbles in their soup was technically less deceptive than not, since not doing so made the soup look like it contained only liquid.

It didn’t work, though, and the FTC charged BBDO and Campbell’s Soup with deceptive advertising. The matter might have dropped from there, if not for the general public’s subsequent outrage when they found out about a year later.

Most influential among those unhappy with their soup looking decidedly more liquidy in real life was an organization known as the Students Opposed to Unfair Practices, or SOUP, formed in 1970 by a group of law students at George Washington University.  They argued that simply pulling deceptive ads as the FTC had ordered Campbell’s wasn’t enough. After all, the advertisement had already worked its magic to some extent. Thus, they felt Campbell’s should have to run new ads explicitly explaining their deception and what the real product looked like when consumers actually made it.

While the FTC dismissed the group initially, within a year FTC officials adopted their own version of the idea SOUP was advocating for, namely, something that came to be known as corrective advertising. Essentially, in especially egregious cases of deceptive advertising in the future, the FTC now had the power to order any company who they felt had crossed the line to issue new ads explaining their deception. Other penalties that might be levied included simply a ban on advertising a certain product at all for some set amount of time, or both of these at the same time.

In regards to Campbell’s Soup, while the FTC never ordered them to issue such a correction, the threat of them doing so made the company drop that specific practise like, to quote one source on the matter “a red-hot spoon”.  By 1972, the FTC, in turn, dropped the case against Campbell’s.

The damage was done, though, and advertisers quickly stopped many of the existing deceptive practices used to advertise food in the hopes of avoiding earning the ire of both the FTC and the public. In the long run, however, this mostly just forced food stylists who make the food in ads look especially delicious to get ever more creative in how they do their jobs.

For example, if you’re wondering, to get around rules about putting marbles in the bottom of bowls of soup to make the solid ingredients more visible, food stylists today typically put soup in comically shallow bowls and frame photos taken in a way that hides this fact from viewers. On top of that, another common trick is to simply scoop the soup into a shallow ladle or spoon and overlay it above the bowl to hide most of the bowl’s contents, thus making the non-liquid contents of the soup extremely prominent to the viewer.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

Bonus Fact:

Ever wonder what the “57” in “57 Varieties of Heinz” means? Well, wonder no more. By 1892, H.J. Heinz Company had grown from a small company selling horseradish in clear glass jars, something Henry Heinz started doing at around the age of 10 years old when his parents gave him 3/4 of an acre of land to start a business with, to having a decent sized company selling over 60 products. It was at this time that the business instituted their now famous “57 Varieties of Heinz” slogan. Heinz had come up with the slogan while riding on a train in New York City in 1892.  While on the train, he spotted a shoe store advertisement that was promoting their “21 styles of shoes”.  He thought his company should have a similar slogan, promoting the fact that they produced many different products. Rather than go with the exact number of products they made at the time (which would continue to grow to nearly 6,000 today), he instead chose “57”.  According to H.J. Heinz Company, he chose this number simply because he thought it was a lucky number and liked the sound of “57 Varieties of Heinz”.  It was also reasonably close to the number of products that they actually produced at the time, so they went with it.

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