A dirty business

Advertising - Ross Diamond is amused by a very English brand of tasteless irony

At a time when the US consumer spends more on fast food than on films, books, magazines, videos and recorded music combined, the advertising world, that slag of all industries, brings us another cynical manipulation of sex and desire in the form of a £4.5m ad campaign proclaiming Pot Noodle "the slag of all snacks". The manufacturers and advertisers will undoubtedly be delighted by Jonathan Freedland's reaction in the Guardian condemning the campaign as "the latest in a series of ads, songs and even clothes that are doing their best to make sexual violence seem mainstream".

One of the ads opens with a TV spot showing a dull, middle-aged man bored with his home life and with his wife, who offers only bland unadventurous food (for which, read "bland unadventurous sex"). Our man is clearly craving spicier satisfactions, and we follow him round a series of back-street shops, discreetly asking for something harder and more unusual. After several outraged refusals, he eventually finds a woman willing to give him what he wants. We join the couple in a dingy backroom where the man is seen guiltily revelling in the depravity of a Pot Noodle: the slag of all snacks. Other campaign slogans include "Hurt me, you slag", and "Sounds dirty and it is".

Rather than pushing at boundaries of taste and acceptability, however, the campaign exploits a typically English humour and attitude to sex, firmly rooted in the tradition of the saucy seaside postcard and Viz comic. Illicit sex represents the guilty pleasure we take in fast food, and sado-masochism becomes a metaphor for our love affair with volcanically hot curries - and the new Bombay Bad Boy Pot Noodle. Carry On humour and erotic spanking may come from different ends of the class spectrum, but both emerge from a particularly English combination of prudishness and prurience, as characterised in our press.

Our attitude to food is another reason for the ads' success: only in Britain do we celebrate the great greasy breakfast. While Europeans refuse to tolerate such rubbish, Americans pretend that everything is healthy. It has become a Pot Noodle tradition to stress how bad for you its product is - one campaign featured the immortal line: "A whole one? You fat bloater!" This "naughty therefore nice" approach is in marked contrast to other snack food advertisers. Celebrating the unhealthiness of these dehydrated snacks, the campaign acknowledges that successful products from cocaine to chocolate are consumed because people enjoy them - not because they are the prey of advertisers.

According to HHCL, the company behind the Pot Noodle ads since 1992, the target market for the product is "16- to 24-year-old men - a highly desirable, demanding and very media-savvy group of people". This audience has grown up with post-feminism, ironic pornography, Loaded, and so on. It is a culture always on the look out for hidden messages and in-crowd codes, but one which is often unaware of any "real" level of thinking to which its references relate. For many, the idea of seriously engaging in genuinely kinky stuff is unimaginable, since it would imply commitment, a passion for something other than football, and might make the young man an object of derision.

Advertisers have always exploited sex and sexuality to sell products, and the excuse of postmodern irony has led some to revert to the cheap sexism of previous decades. These particular advertisements, however, are clever and funny. But, in a world of irony, we may be less able to deal with the desires that advertising hopes to stir.

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