Saturday 18 March 2023

That Time Michael Owen Became a Crisp Flavour

In the late 1990s, Michael Owen was a big deal. After announcing himself on the world stage at France 98, where he shredded the Argentinian defence into confetti, he continued this form domestically with Liverpool and established himself as English football's next great hope. Naturally, where there's success, there's also money, and this is why Walkers, hot on the heels of their success with Gary Lineker, were keen to invest in Michael Owen. Walkers' strategy involved renaming their iconic Cheese & Onion flavour to Cheese & Owen. And British Crisps remembers it well.

In a deal rumoured, at the time, to be worth a cool £500,000, Walkers secured the face of Michael Owen to help them shift crisps. It was a natural fit for Walkers as their linkup with Gary Lineker had proven to be a stroke of maketing genius. And, for Owen, well, who's going to turn their nose up at a half a million? Yes, a modern footballer probably would, but back in 1999, Owen was 'only' on £100,000 a month.

The focus of the campaign would centre around Lineker's villainous crisp snatcher persona desperately trying to get his hands on Owen's new crisps. This rivalry would take the form of a memorable advert - where Lineker would try to put an end to Owen with falling pianos and demolition balls - and a series of five special crisp packets.

These transformed Cheese & Onion crisp packets would feature a series of comic vignettes where, again, Lineker - clearly hurting from Owen stealing his thunder - attempts to thwart Owen's unstoppable rise to the top. At the same time, Walkers re-released their Salt & Lineker flavour in five special packet designs, each featuring an alternate angle of the Owen vignettes, this time with the focus on Lineker.

Quite how long the Cheese & Owen/Salt & Lineker packets remained in circulation is unclear, but they certainly weren't featured in the follow-up TV advert in 2000. This featured Lineker trying, and this time succeeding, to flatten Owen with the help of a rugby team. Regardless of the length of the campaign, which was masterminded by Abbot Mead Vickers, it was a playful affair and one which tapped into the zeitgeist of Owenmania.

I was far from a Liverpool supporter in 1999 (or indeed now), but as a staunch England fan, I couldn't help but get mildly swept up in Owenmania. More importantly, there was a sniff of collectability in the air and, I reasoned, if I were to collect all five of the Cheese & Owen packet designs, they might be worth a fortune one day. Sadly, a quick look on Ebay reveals that you would be lucky to get £5 per pack now. Sure, it's roughly a 1500% increase, but it's not going to save my finances.

Nonetheless, hanging on to these packets for nearly 25 years does give me the opportunity to give you a closer look at what this promotion looked like. And, indeed, I've probably only looked at these two or three times in the intervening years, so it's a good excuse for me to get all nostalgic too.

Featuring caricatures of Owen, blisfully living his best life, and Lineker, desperately trying to regain the spotlight, they're chucklesome affairs and are backed with newspaper style reports on the packet, mostly ridiculing Lineker's ears and declining popularity.

But did this campaign have any long lasting impact on the crisps? No, it didn't change Cheese & Onion or Salt & Vinegar one iota. It was fun for the consumer, though, as it livened up the packets and no doubt generated more sales for Walkers. So, in that sense, it was job done.

And what of Owen? Well, despite a successful footballing career, he didn't quite go on to hit the heights expected of him in the late 90s, And, when it comes to crisps, his dalliance with these snacks would be short-lived. Instead, it would be Lineker who was forever dubbed as the footballing crisp merchant. I doubt this bothers Owen and, no doubt, his bank balance remains ridiculously healthy.

Would a similar promotion work with modern footballers? Perhaps, but what would the punny flavours be? Let me know in the comments below.

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