Which is hotter? A scantily clad model in a red bikini or the new Piri Piri Chicken Pot Noodle?

The ADgenda: The ASA recently banned a Unilever advert. But they missed a spot.

Which is hotter? A scantily clad model in a red bikini or the new Piri Piri Chicken Pot Noodle? It was this question in a Facebook advert that landed Unilever in hot water recently and resulted in the ad being banning by the Advertising Standards Authority.

But yet at the same time a video, that was part of the same campaign, escaped punishment. It follows the bus journey of a man, frustrated with the lack of spice in his life, who picks up a pot noodle and miraculously finds himself face to face with a dancing woman. As our man begins to get excited, the girl pulls off her top but, much to the Pot Noodle eater’s chagrin, turns into a rather dishevelled man. So what’s the difference?

The ASA do give their reasons for damning one and allowing the other.  They claim the former is unacceptable because of "the presentation of the woman in a sexual pose". The latter passes the test, however, because "the female character was not presented in sexist or degrading way". But yet, whether or not the woman has clothes off or not, surely the sentiment is the same. The Piri Piri Pot Noodle = stripping/stripped woman. If this is the case, it is the fact that the woman is in a bikini and not fully clothed that got the advert banned.

But what is confusing is that another reason the ASA gave for banning the first advert was that "the blatant comparison with the food product was crass and degrading and therefore likely to cause serious offence to some visitors to Pot Noodle Facebook page." This seems to imply that the video advert does not imply a comparison with the food product. But the ASA says that the video is fine because we are aware of the "reality of the situation and that it was actually a man with whom the main character was flirting". But, surely, a realisation of this also means that we should draw a comparison between the food and the woman.

The banned advert simply makes explicit what the allowed advert implies. Banning one advert and not the other, then, serves to reveal that the content of the acceptable advert, when followed to its logical conclusion, is unacceptable. The ASA has contradicted itself.

All in all, this ASA ruling seems to follow a common trend. Explicit bad, implicit fine. Either the ASA should have allowed the comparison to stand, or it should have banned both. As it is, it has skirted the central issue.  

A still from the Unilever advert. Photograph: Getty Images
HEINZ BAUMANN/GALLERY STOCK
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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad