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Our brains are scrambled in sickly celebrity sauce: Nicholas Roe marvels that Sainsbury's has managed to make fame a staple ingredient of the British diet

WHEN a television commercial becomes a metaphor for life, you have a problem on your hands. And that is what we have just now, courtesy of the thinking-person's superstore.

You have seen them, I imagine, those now-famous ads in which lard-voiced celebrities such as Zoe Wanamaker, Philip Schofield and Catherine Zeta Jones tell us how to make exotic dishes in exactly a minute. That is, the instructions take a minute, but you could be forgiven for thinking the dishes are just as quickly done. It looks so easy, you see. Hey - I could do that.

So simple that, according to Sainsbury's this week, when these enticing snippets are broadcast, we dash out and buy up to 20 times our normal quantities of whatever ingredients the recipes happen to be flogging.

All those olives. All that filo pastry. All those anxieties bubbling to the surface as reality finally rises along with a light tarnish of buttery scum. People saying, 'It wasn't like this when Felicity Kendal did it on telly.'

What convinces us that we can manage? How does a minute's instruction from a nob on television fool us into such sudden culinary risk? Here's the nub of that metaphor, because anything that can persuade a nation which likes toad-in-the-hole to try tagliatelle with bacon and pesto in less time than it takes to thread a needle must have deeper implications.

We must winkle out the truth, discover what it is that makes us so responsive to those seductive ingredients of food and fame and sets with such clever lighting you could eat the table, never mind the dish. Here is the key that may unlock whole oceans of knowledge.

Is it sex? Oh no. Granted, the foodie close-ups, so cleverly juxtaposed with the sudden revelation of the star at the very end, adds piquancy to our viewing. Gobble gobble, we think, as the screen fades demurely on Felicity. Yet this avenue of hope leads only to a roadblock of perplexity when you run your finger down the roll of participating celebs and stop short at Denis Healey. Gobble gobble, gulp.

Is it, then, implicit in the speed of the message, the touch-and-go method of reassurance in which details are simply brushed aside, allowing us to crush doubt with a great big dollop of ignorance? Possibly once, possibly twice. But Sainsbury's has been running these ads for four years and still we go dutifully hatchbacking down there with our tongues hanging out every time the magic minute beckons.

Maybe there is a crueller element of needle, even rank insult? 'Blimey, if she can do it I certainly can.' No. Too destructive a motivation, and anyway, too active for a society that watches so much television. That explanation also flies in the face of the more likely truth, which is the more worrying one and the thing that finally comes home after watching and loving these adverts time and time again: Zoe, Kiri, Sue.

The fact is that in no other commercial is the element of fame so cleverly, so inseparably, so literally linked to the realities of consumption. We're eating the famous at Sainsbury's because we trust the diet. We have grown used to comparing the days of our lives with well- known people; matched up our mantelpieces and adjusted our views against their better vision. Now, finally, we are attacking their food. What next? Don't think about it.

Instead, think about why it happens. We do it because this generation is too timid to do otherwise, and if you doubt that, look at the evidence available elsewhere. We won't buy the book if it isn't written by someone we know; won't see the film without a star; won't even buy insurance without a cosy voice- over from that man we recognise off Radio 1, whose music we don't even like very much but whose judgement we trust on wider issues such as which policy to buy.

We eat at Sainsbury's because we need the comfort of reassurance from those we trust, and we trust Sue Barker and the rest because their faces are familiar. When they return from the kitchen with a reassurance that tagliatelle is really quite easy we are absolved of the responsibility of risk. Even if we do foul up, the blame is theirs, not ours. Thank you, Denis, thank you Selina. I feel safer with my pasta now.

I don't know how to apply this message to the wider issues of life, but I'm sure you can. All I can do is offer my own favourite recipe in 60 seconds precisely, because I've just done it, in between writing the last paragraph and this one. Ready?

Go to the cupboard, take out what's there, open it, put in pan, warm. Eat. But you probably won't do it, because I'm not famous.

(Photograph omitted)