Branding: No more salty gags for Walkers

It's out with Gary Lineker in schoolgirl uniforms and in with dietary advice as the crisps giant mounts its biggest-ever relaunch. Ian Burrell talks to Peter Souter of AMV BBDO about a snack that had to change tack
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The master of vocal improvisation will be beaming even more than usual this week, when Walkers crisps, Britain's number one supermarket brand, launches its biggest-ever advertising campaign, featuring his fabled whistling as its soundtrack.

Yet these much-anticipated new television ads are not quite the funny, irreverent snippets of panto that we have come to expect during a decade of the crisp-snatching antics of Gary "No More Mr Nice Guy" Lineker.

Yes, the former England football captain remains at the forefront of what is the longest-running celebrity campaign in British ad history, but his role has changed altogether.

Whereas once he was an architect of mischief, encouraging viewers to treat themselves to a little guilty pleasure, now he is a figure of responsibility, reciting facts and figures before the camera. A packet of Walkers now has "70 per cent less sat fat" and "8 per cent GDA [guideline daily allowance]", he declares, using terminology more traditionally associated with a scientist than a soccer legend.

PepsiCo UK, the company that owns Walkers, is spending £20m on advertising what it claims is the biggest relaunch in its history, as it drastically cuts the amount of artery-clogging saturated fat in its product (from 3.5g to 0.9g in a packet of cheese and onion, though overall girth-spreading fat content remains the same, at a not inconsiderable 11.4g).

It has fallen to Peter Souter, the executive creative director turned deputy chairman of the advertising agency AMV BBDO, to find a way of getting the dietary message across without blowing the equity built up in the previously humorous Lineker campaigns, where Gary has been known to don a schoolgirl uniform and other unlikely disguises.

Souter's solution has been to turn the original campaign idea on its head and make Lineker the trustworthy goody-goody once again. "More Mr Nice Guy", if you will.

"It's ironic, really, because Gary got hired in the first place because he was a squeaky-clean footballer who we turned into a bad guy and now he is the perfect spokesman for saying 'Get your kids to eat a good diet and have a bit of fun'," says Souter.

"There was some debate that, because the product has gone through quite a change, should the way we bring it in front of people change? Should we drop Gary? My feeling all along has been that it would look panicky, it would look like the wrong thing to do. There's nothing wrong with what we've been doing. We are not the bad guys."

In the past, the campaign had "never really needed to do more than remind you [eating crisps] was a really nice way to spend three minutes". That has changed with growing Government concern over the costs of rising obesity levels.

Souter points out that AMV BBDO never took a cigarette account and will not advertise children's toys. "We are reasonably regarded as being just the right side of capitalist pig," says the adman, who also goes out of his way to mention his lifelong support of the Labour Party and his frustration that the Government is "closing a school playground every day" (thus, presumably, denying kids the chance to run off a packet of Walkers), while ministers lambast makers of snack foods. "You don't get obese eating a packet of crisps. You get obese eating curry and pizza and not doing any exercise, leading a sedentary life."

By casting a BBC presenter almost as a Mr Cholmondeley-Warner public information service (Lineker compares the salt levels of Walkers and a slice of bread and the fat levels of Walkers and a chocolate biscuit), Souter has had to jump through many hoops to ensure the ads comply with the British Code of Advertising. Scientists were called in evidence. "There's nothing in the ads you couldn't say in a court of law," he says.

Souter would "have preferred not to have used" expressions such as GDA. "I'm not trying to make them particularly scientific, but we are trying to make sure there's nothing in the ad which can be misinterpreted," he says.

The Lineker campaign was devised by John Webster, the highly respected creative from the BMP agency, who died recently. Souter, who has masterminded the campaign for the past six years, is generous in giving credit where it is due. "He was a genius and I'm a little copycat," he says. "It was a great campaign and the only thing I'm really proud of is making Gary more like Wile E Coyote versus the Road Runner - he loses more in my ads, getting blown up and having his ears cut off. Cruel people say I earn a lot of money doing ear gags."

The change in the ads themselves is so marked that Lineker himself expressed concern that they were not funny enough. "I think he likes the fact that people come up to him and say the ads are funny," says Souter, who like Lineker, is a Leicester lad. His mother used to buy produce from the Lineker family's fruit-and-veg stall in the city. Their shared roots help Souter when he is writing scripts that will "sound natural" in the East Midlands accent they both have. "We share the same intonation, although he's getting slightly posher," he says, laughing.

Crucial, then, is Lineker's pay-off line in each of the new ads: "Just thought you'd like to know," which gives the ads a slightly less didactic feel, where Lineker comes across as less of an establishment figure and more a trusted uncle or fellow parent.

"I was just looking for really natural language that doesn't say any more or any less than what it is. It's not trying to claim too much. We are not saying we should be sold in Holland & Barrett," says Souter. "Gary does a superb performance. He's not lecturing and he doesn't look like he's got anything to hide," he says.

Souter took over as AMV BBDO's creative head from the legendary Abbott Mead Vickers agency founder David Abbott in 1997. His office is a spectacular eyrie with ceiling-to-floor windows that look down the teeming Marylebone Road. His table is scattered with drawings in red ink, which turn out to be fresh ideas for ads for The Economist, another of the most memorable campaigns in British adland.

He also works on Sainsbury's advertising alongside Jamie Oliver, from whom he has learned a lot about the merits of fresh produce.

But he argues that it is very important that the campaign he has devised for Britain's biggest crisp brand "does not appear apologetic" and contrasts the approach with recent advertising for McDonald's, which has often concentrated on the availability of new healthier food options. "McDonald's look like they are committing suicide in public. They seem apologetic. The fact they work so hard to say 'We sell salads', to me that says, in brackets, 'Don't eat the dead cow'," he says.

"People say crisps and sweets are bad for you. When they say sweets it [affects] 100 brands, but, because we are the biggest crisps brand by miles, it hits us really hard. We just wanted to do some ads that tell you exactly how it is and that it is OK to eat a bag of crisps a day."