The face that launched a million chips

It's 10 years since football hero Gary Lineker stole a little boy's crisps. He tells Ian Burrell how the ad campaign became one of the most successful celebrity endorsements ever.
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There has not been a British advertising campaign to match it since Will Owen whipped out his crayons at the end of the First World War and sketched out the Bisto Kids.

There has not been a British advertising campaign to match it since Will Owen whipped out his crayons at the end of the First World War and sketched out the Bisto Kids.

This week marks a decade since Gary Lineker, probably the greatest English footballing hero since Bobby Moore, came home from Japan and decided to link himself inextricably to packets of potato crisps.

He has now made 50 ads for Walkers, appearing with the likes of Helena Christensen, the Duchess of York and the Spice Girls and turning the brand into the leader in the crisps market. In an era of rebranding, and where celebrity status ebbs and flows in an instant, it seems extraordinary that a major player such as Walkers should retain such faith in a single individual.

"Originally it was just for the first advert. Then it went for another advert, then to years," says Lineker. "I'm chuffed the way it's gone. People love the adverts and I get great feedback from them. The brand has gone from strength to strength."

In aligning himself with Walkers - and the campaign devised for him by BMP and then developed by Abbot Mead Vickers (AMV) - Lineker has skilfully used advertising to develop his own brand and media career.

"You have to be so guarded when you are a player. You look at people like Michael Owen and Alan Shearer, the ones that everyone says are pretty straight, pretty dull. We all pigeon-hole people," he says. "Doing something a little bit different can help give you an edge, which is something you need if you are going to branch out into broadcasting. You can't be perceived as being totally dull."

The Walkers ads have redefined the squeaky-clean Lineker as a cheeky chappie with a willingness to laugh at himself, while at the same time honing his front-of-camera skills and enabling him to become the face of BBC football coverage.

He acknowledges that the ads have helped immensely with his broadcasting. "It gives you a little bit of courage to take a chance in terms of humour and not worry about people laughing at you. Self-deprecation has been a huge part of these commercials," he says of ads that have seen him dressed up as a headmistress, a nun and a punk in order to get his mitts on more crisps. Self-deprecation is a word that Lineker uses several times during the interview.

There was a stage in the long-running campaign when he saw his own public image disappearing into the fat fryer, with a stream of disparaging headlines about the role of snack foods in childhood obesity. As one of England's sporting icons, he clearly feels the criticisms have been grossly unfair.

"When I was in Japan I turned down absolute fortunes to do alcohol and cigarettes [commercials] because I felt strongly about it. I came home and did a nice blue riband company and then eight and half years on you are perceived by some as the devil incarnate," he says. "It's because no one else has been associated with a brand for so long."

Lineker thinks the charge that his endorsement of a crisp brand encourages children to become couch potatoes is a facile one.

"It's a very unbalanced argument. Since I was growing up kids have liked treats, crisps and sweets and chocolate. As long as it's part of a balanced diet it's never been a problem. We all know the real issue: if there is a trend towards more obesity, it is because kids don't perform athletically as much as they used to. You can understand why. Crikey, I've got four kids of my own and getting them off their backsides and away from the computer games is difficult."

He has two years of his Walkers contract still to run and - with AMV believing there is far more mileage in the campaign - looks set to continue his relationship with the brand for years to come. Peter Souter, deputy chairman of AMV, has written all the scripts for the Lineker ads since the agency acquired the account five years ago. "I thought it would be fun to have him as the loser, where the person with the crisps escapes the evil plans he has," says Souter. "Gary is used to being in front of 30,000 people and not making a mistake. A crew of 50 people is less intimidating."

Souter says: "We are pretty sure it's the longest-running celebrity campaign. We try to sign Gary for five years at a time and I think there's a lot of life left in him."

Lineker himself praises the campaign's director Paul Weiland for having "a good comic eye". Although has no input into the scriptwriting, the football star says he does "have a final say". He says: "I've turned down a couple of scripts. There was one I remember that was a follow-up to the Gazza one where they wanted us to dance round the dressing room with nothing on and jock-straps on our heads. I didn't understand that one so I knocked that on the head. There's a line that you shouldn't cross. There comes a point where it crosses to bad taste." He also refused a script that required him to wear a face mask.

In making the transition to broadcaster he owes a debt to a former colleague who is now a rival presenter. "The guy who had most influence on me by far was Des Lynam," says Lineker. "I watched him, and learned from him. He was the only one I thought tried to have a little bit of a funny line and was brave enough to have a go at it."

Lineker knows that it is his record on the pitch that gives him an edge over other sports broadcasters. "I have a massive advantage there and it's important that I play to that," he says. "Especially if I'm interviewing managers or something - they can never look at me and say 'what do you know?', which is something I see all the time with others."

Lineker says he was treated "brilliantly" by the press during his career but there has since been a breakdown in relations between the media and top footballers. "I used to sit and talk to the journalists and socialise with them. It's the fault of both parties but the front of newspapers started to get too interested in the players' discrepancies rather than the football and that soured it. I feel for the sports journalists a bit because it wasn't their fault," he says.

He is adamant that he will not present any other sports on television or do any quiz shows. "I made a decision that football is what I know. I have a nice balance to my life; I see loads of my kids and I play my golf when I like. I don't particularly want to branch into other sports because I don't think I have the same standing. I have no interest whatsoever in going into showbiz because I haven't got the enthusiasm for that larger than life quiz show sort of thing."

The self-deprecation of the Walkers ads comes out in his views on his radio career too. There won't be any more of that, he says. "It was brilliant and taught me a lot but I don't think I'm that good at it. Again it's my voice. I've got this monotone East Midlands accent which doesn't really work on radio."

To some, Lineker - 48 goals for England - is a national hero. To others, he claims, he is an annoyance. "I get letters," he says. "There are inevitably lots and lots of people out there that I irritate. To all those people I'm dreadfully sorry."

It's hard to see a hate figure in the well-mannered and articulate Gary Lineker of Leicester City, Everton, Tottenham Hotspur and Barcelona. But he was ever the diplomat as a player and is clearly aware that a little of that self-deprecation can go a long way in stopping the Lineker brand from feeling overexposed.

"I'm quite aware that in this country if you stick your head over the parapet a fraction too far you tend to get it cut off,' he says. "People don't like you getting too big for your boots."

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