Mythically naff

Observations on Pot Noodle

Underneath the "hallowed hills" of Crumlin in South Wales, miners are hard at work, blasting the rocks to find rich "noodle seams". A voice-over from the valleys intones that Pot Noodle is the "fuel of Britain, isn't it". With this new advertising campaign we are entering the third age of Pot Noodle - and the first two are a lesson in social history.

Golden Wonder launched Pot Noodle in 1979, the year Margaret Thatcher came to power. The concept came from Japan, where Cup Ramen has none of the slobby connotations of its British cousin. For a while we were confused. Pot Noodle seemed to belong to an earlier era of space-age, dehydrated food (Vesta curries, Smash), while embracing a new trend for "pit-stop dining". Since it had similar rivals, such as Knorr's Knoodles and Batchelors Snackpots, it took some time to enter the national psyche as a mythically naff snack.

By 1988, however, the writer Philip Norman was complaining about "the patriotism which, after Pot Noodles, must rank as the Eighties' great synthetic triumph". Early Pot Noodle commercials were defensive - it was always tastier and more sophisticated than you imagined.

In 1993, the second age began when Pot Noodle moved its advertising account to HHCL, which produced a dozen years of postmodern campaigns. Terry, a nerdy, camcorder-carrying Welshman, asked: "How can Pot Noodle be faffy food? It's too gorgeous." Real Pot Noodle-eating men got into fights with weedy men in T-shirts emblazoned with "Rocket" and "Brown Rice". These campaigns were aimed at young consumers who were irony-literate but felt excluded from middle-class, metropolitan cuisine. They came at the same time as the core ingredient of Pot Noodle was moving upmarket, with the arrival of trendy noodle-bar chains such as Wagamama.

The problem with all this "constructive negativity", as advertisers like to call it, was that there was only one way to go: downmarket. Pot Noodle campaigns became more extreme. Only a year ago, men with bulges in their trousers were admitting to having "the Pot Noodle horn".

Now the third age has begun. According to the new ads, Pot Noodle is part of our heritage and even of the earth itself.

But none of this seems to make any difference, as Pot Noodle sales have remained remarkably consistent over the years. In a recent survey for Marketing magazine, Pot Noodle was voted Britain's most hated brand, yet a quarter of the population has bought a Pot Noodle in the past year. As Joanna Blythman shows in her recent book Bad Food Britain, the nation's so-called "foodie culture" is a Potemkin village - a beautiful edifice of farmers' markets and gastropubs, behind which we are all stuffing ourselves with microwaveable chips and pot snacks.

Some clichés are true: the main consumers of Pot Noodles are teenagers and students. On a recent residential weekend with my students, I was given the task of buying the food. When I arrived loaded with shopping bags, the students castigated me for not buying any Pot Noodles. They were stranded in a remote part of the Lleyn Peninsula without their staple food. They persuaded me to drive to the nearest garage to buy some, and there I was confronted by a phenomenon I had never noticed before: a themed shelf full of Pot Noodles, in subtly different shades, like a Rothko painting. There was even a hot-water dispenser for people who could not wait to get to a kettle.

The world since 1979 has changed totally beyond recognition. But some things in life remain the same: death, taxes, and Pot Noodle.

Joe Moran lectures at Liverpool John Moores University