ITV 50 Years of Fame: Private view - Oxo

J. Walter Thompson's first Oxo commercial appeared in 1958. Katie, its heroine, quickly became the nation's darling housewife: slim, pretty, prissy and fanciable, as she set Philip's dinner before him (1).

It was Episode No. 1 in a mini soap opera that was to run for decades, and sell a whole lot of Oxo. It was the Brechtian theatre of alienation and, at the same time, innovative: Katie turns away from the appreciative Philip to address the audience. With the slightest hint of naughtiness as she says, in those clear-cut, actressy, strangulated tones of the 50s: "Oxo gives a meal man appeal." (And I, Katie, and you, the audience, know how it's done, and Philip doesn't.)

The story kept up with the times as they changed: hairstyles, hems, lifestyle, children growing, leaving home to a single tear and a brave smile, set up for life by Katie's nourishing Oxo-based meals (3). "Oh!" we the audience thought. "If only we all lived like that! If only all husbands were so calm, domesticity so unflustered: if only contentment could be brought about by that little square cube of granulated essence of beef." It was one of the first of the convenience foods: it met the taste and colour requirements of the day. Just plain salty and just plain brown, crumble into water and there you have it - gravy! It was so convincing. And we bought the dream and we bought Oxo, and JWT thought up the stories.

Those were the days when ads ran to 60 seconds, 90 seconds, or even 120 - and copywriters had time to develop a story and characters, and use meaningful, even subtle, reaction shots. Those were the days of wine and roses, when there was full employment; heady days of insouciance when those of us who worked down the road at Ogilvy & Mather could get a pay rise simply by threatening to go and join JWT.

Those were also the days when creative departments were positively Reithian.

We showed the families society aspired to, not the ones they actually were, although this strategy altered later on with the introduction of the Oxo family, where mum and dad exchange knowing glances in "remember Preston" (5). The Oxo family disappeared from our screens in 1999, only to return in updated form in 2001 (4). The most recent ad on this reel, "rock", even includes a dancing granny, which would have been out of the question in Katie's time (6).

Back then, we educated, improved and reformed and we took our social responsibilities seriously. Not for us Pot Noodles in front of the telly.

No. Katie's happy family sat down to a proper meal with meat and two veg, bound together by Oxo.

In Katie's day, I was making commercials at Ogilvy & Mather, selling happy families and mother love for the Egg Marketing Board. When I say making, I mean literally. O&M had just started its in-house TV department.

One office, one darkroom, one girl (me) and one technician. We grew in sophistication and staff but that was how it began.

But advertising was pretty powerful stuff, even then. I wrote a full-page ad for the women's magazines - an "Add-An-Egg" recipe for a Christmas pudding. The combined readership of women's magazines in the mid-60s was in the region of 20 million. They trusted us. Millions made their Christmas puddings in October. Boiled and unwrapped them on Christmas Day. Every one was covered with green mould. I had forgotten to mention the sugar. Up the road at JWT, they'd never have done a thing like that.

1. OXO Tilte: Jackataties Agency: J. Walter Thompson Year: 1958 2. OXO Tilte: Homecoming Agency: J. Walter Thompson Year: 1969 3. OXO Tilte: Last supper Agency: J. Walter Thompson Year: 1999 4. OXO Tilte: Recipe d'Amour Agency: J. Walter Thompson Year: 2001 5. OXO Tilte: Remember Preston Agency: J. Walter Thompson Year: 1985 6. OXO Tilte: Rock Agency: Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO Year: 2004

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