But then Peter Davis (then Sainsbury's marketing director) met David Abbott - and the rules changed. Jacques Chirac may scorn our culinary culture, but these ads don't just reflect changes in the way supermarkets advertise; they showcase Britain's growing passion for food and our increasingly egalitarian kitchens.
We begin in 1983, with a lovingly crafted film of Frenchmen making flour using a stone-grinder (2). This ancient method, we learn, makes bread taste better. With its focus on luxury ingredients, the ad is a taste of things to come; but it's still 1983, so there has to be a shot of the loaf, and the price (39p, since you ask).
One year on, this spot replays Sainsbury's ads from 1969 to 1984 - with an awfully polite voiceover, and some equally courteous shoppers (3).
Even in the 80s, it appears an estuary accent was not becoming of a supermarket spokesperson, and the customers are all jolly respectable too. "For as long as we can remember, we've been saying 'good food costs less at Sainsbury's'," says our BBC World Service type, "and our customers seem to agree." Agree they do, and - lest we disbelieve these paragons of high-street propriety - our voiceover reminds us: "If it wasn't still true, we wouldn't still be saying it." That's us told.
By 1993, the reverence accorded to raw ingredients had evolved to something more akin to, well, porn (1). Water gushes over shimmering vegetables; dinner jazz swoons suggestively in the background; the voiceover recites a recipe with palpable desire. The implication seems to be that, if you cook with this stuff, you'll probably have great sex. What's more, it's revealed that great sex might even be with Selina Scott. It's hard not to imagine more men finding their way to the supermarket after that one.
The "everyone's favourite ingredient" campaign ran for almost a decade.
Breathtakingly simple, devastatingly effective, each 60-second spot gave the nation a memorable and accessible recipe. The featured products flew off the shelves. Uplifts on certain products reached 1,000 per cent.
The sexy food theme continues, albeit less overtly, in this 1997 execution (4). It's another list, illustrating the variety of Sainsbury's goods (103 cheeses, 31 kinds of ham, etc). Louis Armstrong burbles happily in the background and we're told that, when the food is this fresh, "The food sells the supermarket". It lacks the raciness of sexy Selina, but it shows just how far customers' priorities, and Sainsbury's, had come.
Three years later, and the immortal line: "Fancy a ruby?" (5) Welcome to the world of dropped 'h's, cavernous loft apartments and lads that cook. Maybe he got over-exposed, but Jamie Oliver remains a casting masterstroke.
Here, he knocks up a curry as if he's Tom Cruise in Cocktail, and his crestfallen look when his mates pretend they don't want it is still charming.
Staying with Jamie, but leaving food behind altogether, the final ad is a joint effort for Comic Relief (6). This is a grown-up, philanthropic Oliver, explaining how Sainsbury's helps Comic Relief in South Africa.
It's nicely executed, and shows a mature brand in full corporate social responsibility mode.
So, there it is, from 39p loaves and thrifty housewives to post-pub curries and charity work, in 20 years. How Sainsbury's has changed. And how we have too.
1. SAINSBURY'S Title: Selina Scott Agency: Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO Year: 1991 2. SAINSBURY'S Title: Stoneground wholemeal bread Agency: Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO Year: 1983 3. SAINSBURY'S Title: Old footage, 1969-1984 Agency: Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO Year: 1984 4. SAINSBURY'S Title: Fresh foods Agency: Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO Year: 1997 5. SAINSBURY'S Title: Lads' night in Agency: Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO Year: 2000 6. SAINSBURY'S Title: Comic Relief Agency: Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO Year: 2005