Rewind: From Zeta-Jones to Naked Potatoes, a Look at U.K. 'Food Porn'

Marks & Spencer's Latest Campaign Represents an Evolution of Foodie Advertising

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It used to be said that you couldn't eat well in the U.K.. But even that humblest of British foods, the Scotch egg, looks mouthwateringly delicious in Marks & Spencer's new "Adventures In Imagination" campaign, launched last week by the U.K. retailer. Set to a dance music soundtrack ("Clean Bandit" by Rather Be) the film by RKCR/Y&R shows ingredients such as prawns and pomegranates sizzling, curling and twirling as if in a music video, while managing to make more ordinary ingredients like grated cheese, raw minced beef and peeled potato look gorgeous and seductive.

The campaign is the latest in a U.K. legacy of "food porn" ads, in which advertisers have clamored to make simple ingredients look ever more beautiful. However, as viewers' foodie tastes become increasingly sophisticated, "food porn" too has evolved. Marks & Spencer's new ads replace seductive voiceovers with fantastic camerawork and novel filming techniques, letting the ingredients do the talking. Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne, executive director of marketing, said in a statement that the ad showcases "the sensual and surprising aspects of food--like its textures and movement--in a modern, stylish and precision format."

The brand also indicated that it's moving on from its best-known "food porn" campaign, the "Not Just Any" ads that ran in the mid-2000s. In a series of spots over several years, honey-toned actress Dervla Kirwan described ingredients as if she were coaxing the viewer into bed, to a smoky soundtrack and with (highly suggestive) photography of oozing sauces and moist centers. The ads' semi-erotic style was hugely parodied across the U.K. -- but boosted the retailer's fortunes at a time when its clothing offering was struggling. In particular, a spot for its Melt in the Middle Chocolate Pudding saw sales of the Marks & Spencer's product increase 3,500% as a result.

But it was rival Sainsbury's that arguably started the "food porn" trend, in the 1980s and 1990s under the creative direction of David Abbott, the legendary copywriter and former chairman and creative director of Abbott Mead Vickers who passed away earlier this year. His agency's "Everyone's Favorite Ingredient" campaign featured actresses including a young starlet called Catherine Zeta-Jones and helped introduce the British public to fashionable foodie ingredients such as balsamic vinegar, successfully positioning Sainsbury's as a purveyor of fine foods to the middle class. Again, the ads focused on beautiful food described by alluring narrators in finger-licking style (although arguably in a more wholesome way than the Kirwan-era M&S ads.)

In a way, Marks & Spencer's latest work owes more to the influence of Wieden & Kennedy's work for Lurpak. The butter brand's recent campaigns, such as Kitchen Odyssey and Cooking Up a Rainbow, used playful camerawork and innovative cinematography, rather than sex, to show how butter could enhance the taste of simple kitchen ingredients.

According to Freddie Powell and Hollie Walker, creatives on Lurpak at W&K, the work reflects the fact that over the last few years food advertising has undergone a shift, from food shown looking "perfect" to a more "homemade" look and feel. "People are pushing the boundaries of what you can do with food," said Powell. "There used to be a mantra that you don't "play with food" in a food ad, because it makes it look less appetizing, and that you would never show raw meat, for example. But that is changing."

Walker adds that agencies are moving from using directors with a background in food to directors known more for their narrative and technical skills. "It doesn't matter that Dougal Wilson (who directed "Cooking Up a Rainbow") is not the world's biggest foodie; he's happy with a cheese toastie. But he's incredible at telling a story."

Recently, W&K has tried to bring the same influence to another client, Tesco. Spots such as Love Every Mouthful emphasize the joy that can be had in everyday cooking and eating. With Tesco's financial fortunes now languishing (the supermarket giant has just announced a decline in profits for the second year running), maybe a dose of food porn could provide the boost that's needed.