NEWS ANALYSIS: OXO - Oxo family’s last supper marks the end of an era/JWT’s creation is no longer in tune with today’s tastes. Harriet Green finds out why

Autumn, the season of roasts and stews. The Oxo family is back on our screens. In the best-known kitchen in the land, a familiar scene unfolds.

Autumn, the season of roasts and stews. The Oxo family is back on

our screens. In the best-known kitchen in the land, a familiar scene


Lynda sits at the end of the dining table watching her husband, Michael,

her two sons, Nick and Jason, and her daughter, Alison, as they engage

in heated discussion over plates of shepherd’s pie.

But this time it’s different. At London’s Westway Studios, where the

one-day shoot takes place, the air is heavy with nostalgia. There’s an

element of sadness on Lynda Bellingham’s face as she surveys her

grown-up brood. If you look carefully you can see, in one corner of the

studio, bouquets for each of the cast, crates of Bollinger and a giant

cake baked in the shape of an Oxo cube. After 42 commercials, the Oxo

family is eating its last supper.

It’s not just because the children have grown up that the campaign is

coming to an end. The rise in the number of women with jobs outside the

home means that few parents and children sit down together to eat.

Moreover, the natural market for stock cubes is polarising into two

groups: people who follow upmarket TV cookery programmes who have

learned to cook without cubes and people who eat ready-made meals. ’The

way people are cooking is changing,’ Sophie Johnston, Oxo’s brand

manager, explains.

This is not the first time the Unilever subsidiary, Brooke Bond Foods,

has killed a long-running campaign. First there was Katie, who reigned

over Oxo-land for 18 years from 1958. ’Katie was prescriptive,’ says Bob

Boxer, an account director at J. Walter Thompson, the agency that has

held the account since 1902. ’Philip went off to work and Katie stayed

at home to make the house beautiful and prepare a meal fit for him.’

After 1975, when Katie was finally pronounced too middle-aged, Oxo

deserted domesticity until the early 80s. But in an era of gritty soaps

such as EastEnders, viewers would have had no patience for anything too

idyllic. The first commercial with the new characters, broadcast in

October 1983, saw Lynda and Michael sitting down to a meal as their

children argued upstairs.

Signs of marital discord followed in the next ad, with Lynda refusing to

talk to Michael and the children having to act as intermediaries.

Richard Saunders, the JWT copywriter who originated and wrote most of

the campaigns, along with the art director, Peter Celiz, says: ’Until

this campaign, commercials were nice things where people smiled and

children were blue-eyed and blond. We were asked to do real life.’

The success of the campaign owes a lot to its glimpses of social


Early commercials covered marital discord, vegetarianism and


In 1984, a year into the soap opera, Lynda made a bid for freedom by

leaving Michael to make dinner while she went shopping.

Consistency across the board has been the secret of the campaign’s


JWT has held the account for 97 years. Derek Coutts, the BFCS director

whose other work includes soap-opera campaigns for Gold Blend and

Kleenex, has directed every Oxo-family commercial. And the kitchen,

naturally, has remained unchanged apart from occasional


It can be tempting for writers bringing a soap opera to an end to reach

for drastic turns. Think of Eldorado, Dallas or Dynasty. Was Oxo tempted

to do the same? Mass-murder, perhaps? Coutts laughs: ’Richard wrote one

wonderful death scene. There would be a screech of brakes and someone

would come running in saying that Alison had been run over. Personally,

I thought it might have been fun to get some guys to come in and take

the set down.’

Instead, they’ve gone for straightforward sentiment. In the last moments

of the final scene in the final commercial, Lynda sits alone in her

usual chair. But the kitchen over which she has presided for so long is

now empty. Michael enters and puts his arms around her.

’Listen,’ says Lynda, acknowledging the silence.

’So that’s what it sounds like,’ Michael says.

’Time to go,’ says Lynda.

Having reduced everyone on set to tears with her final line, Lynda

remains cheerful about climbing off the, er, gravy-train. ’The campaign

had to end,’ she says. ’Life has changed so radically, what with

one-partner families and people not knowing anything about cooking. It

was about a different era.’

The Oxo story

1902 JWT wins the account

1958 The TV debut of Katie, the ’ordinary housewife’

1967 Katie appears to be increasingly affluent

1968 Katie is moved from London to Northumberland after her chic

lifestyle alienates housewives

1975 Katie is axed

1983 First appearance of the Oxo family, designed to underline the

importance of good home cooking

1984 Signs of marital discord. The mother, Lynda, isn’t talking to the

father, Michael

1984 Lynda cooks up an unusual meal, asking Michael in an alluring tone,

’Remember Preston?’

1985 The son, Nick, arrives home with his exam results. They all hold

their breath till the food is served

1987 Lynda takes a job

1991 Michael takes charge of the cooking so Lynda can watch a film

1992 Nick and Kim invite Lynda and Michael to dinner. They treat them to

an Oxo-seasoned Chinese meal using (golly!) ... a wok

1995 Fancy dress party. The whole family puts on chicken costumes

1999 ’The last supper’