Opinion: Mills on ... Walkers Poppadom Bites

In any pantheon of great British business stories of the past 20 years, Walkers would be right up there at the top.

From its origins, post-World War II, as a small, regional manufacturer of crisps in the East Midlands, to its position today as the dominant player in the snacks market, with a 40 per cent share, Walkers has risen far and fast. That it sells 11 million packs a day is down to three things: a non-stop stream of product innovation; great advertising, marketing and promotion (and I separate the three deliberately); and distribution power, the latter through its absorption into the mighty Pepsi system.

And yet I can't help feeling deeply ambivalent about Walkers. If every nation is a reflection of its snacking culture, what does Walkers' dominance say about us? It has, for example, no fewer than 16 flavours of standard, full-fat crisps, including such mouth-watering ones as Turkey & Paxo, Heinz Tomato Ketchup, and Chinese Spare Ribs. Or take the five-strong Walkers Max range, whose latest addition includes Chip Shop Curry. It seems that Walkers not only degrades our national cuisine - as if everything can be reduced to a flavour of crisp - but rips-off and debases everyone else's too. And guess, by the way, how many variants of low-fat crisps it has: just three.

All this is before you get to its latest new-product wheeze - Poppadom Bites, available in such "authentic" flavours as Creamy Chicken Pasanda & Coriander, Cool Yoghurt & Mint, and Spicy Tandoori; concoctions so fantastic they could only be dreamed up by white-coated scientists in a lab in Leicester.

But, like Robert Campbell in Private View (p38), I love the new ad from Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, starring Gary Lineker and Tara P-T. Considering that the so-called Big Idea - that Poppadom Bites are so delicious you can't help nicking them - is about as big as Tara's IQ and as original as a Procter & Gamble ad, they haven't half done well. The genius is in casting Lineker against his Mr Nice Guy public persona, but we should also acknowledge the contribution made to the advertising by great scripts, great directing, a series of PR-generating co-stars from Ulrika Jonsson to Terry Venables and, above all, consistency.

Astonishingly, Lineker has been the face of Walkers for almost a decade now in around 30 ads. Even though the plotline and denouement of every ad is by now entirely predictable - Gary in implausible disguise tries to nick co-star's crisps and gets his come-uppance - there is something charming and refreshing each time. Who says familiarity breeds contempt.

This one is no exception. It's a little bit strip- joint, a little bit Victorian music hall, and a little bit Ealing comedy. Shamelessly lifting from the Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren 1960 film The Millionairess, T P-T visits Dr Gary in an effort to shake off her addiction to Spicy Tandoori Poppadom Bites. To prepare for her medical examination, with a little sashay and a little shimmy, T P-T strips to her basque and suspenders.

In the best Rex Harrison tradition of someone who can neither act nor sing, T P-T speak-sings of her woes to the tune of Goodness Gracious Me.

It sounds mad, but it all works. She's fab in that game, upper-class way, and perhaps it's because she so obviously can't act her way out of the proverbial paper bag we warm to her.

Of course, it'll get Walkers talked about, and half the nation, me included, will be singing "boom poppadom boom poppadom" and so on till the other half screams "stop". And no doubt Poppadom Bites will sell faster than a vindaloo hits your bowels. Damn them.

- Claire Beale is away.

Dead cert for a Pencil? No pencils for populism.

File under ... I for irritatingly catchy.

What would the chairman's wife say? "Tara looks like she's never touched

a crisp in her life."

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