'Smash' - Instant Mashed Potato Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'Smash' - Instant Mashed Potato

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The scene is a minimalist white room. Six Martian robots - five blue, one red - sit around a circular table. Their large heads look as if they have each been made out of two woks, with eyes from funnels and antenna wires sprouting from a couple of chess pawns.

The leader addresses the Martian on his right in a metallic staccato voice:

Red Martian: 'On your last trip, did you discover what the Earth people eat?'

Blue Martian (holding up a potato in his metal claw): 'They eat a great many of these.' [Other Martians mutter to each other]

'They peel them with their metal knives...' [More muttering] '... boil them for twenty of their minutes...' [Muttering gives way to audible laughter] '...then they smash them all to bits.' [full-on shoulder-shaking laughter]

'They are clearly a most primitive people.' [Martians roll around, waving their appendages in the air]

So ran the well-known Smash instant mashed potato television ad, re-enacted ad nauseam in the school playground, and regularly voted the UK's favourite in those poll shows. Yet, decades on, this space-age labour-saving wonder food - just add boiling water and stir - never quite managed to displace the humble potato. This is its story.

Before This Decade Is Out...

The space theme was appropriate: not only did Cadbury's launch Smash onto an unsuspecting public in 1969, but that year also saw the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, as well as Concorde's first flight. Yet, Smash was not an innovation; the dried potato market was established five years earlier. Cadbury's rivals Mars had got in there first with their Yeoman and Dine brands, and later with Wondermash flakes1.

Within two years, Smash had gained a 55% share of this market, and had established itself as one of the key brands in the rapidly growing Cadbury Schweppes portfolio. By 1977, the firm was producing not only chocolate (Bournville, Flake, Fry's Turkish Delight), but biscuits, cakes, Ty-phoo tea, Hartley's jams, Chivers' jellies, Kenco coffee, Dubonnet, soft drinks such as Cresta, Pepsi-Cola, 7-up and Kia-Ora, and even disinfectants like Jeyes Fluid, Sanilav and Bloo.

Buoyed by the 1970s Martian TV ads, Smash remained a top seller, despite instant mash being to many people a poor substitute for the real thing. It was fairly bland and insipid, lacked the texture of real potato, and adding too much liquid made it into a sloppy, watery mush. However, you could disguise it to some degree by adding a little cream, or some chopped chives.

The only real threat to Smash's profitability was something entirely out of Cadbury's control. A drought in 1975 led to a poor potato harvest, around 40% below expectations. Prices rocketed, and many customers would have sought out and discovered the exotic alternatives of rice and pasta. The humble spud was beginning to lose its stranglehold over the UK's staple diet.

By the mid-1980s, Smash had gradually drifted out of fashion, a victim of TV cookery shows and the celebrity chef culture. It joined a long list of convenience foods at the back of the larder. In 1986, a management buyout created the company Premier Brands, which took over the ailing Ty-phoo, Chivers, Hartley's and Smash. As Premier Foods, it is today the UK's largest food producer, having acquired other nostalgia brands such as Bird's, Fray Bentos, Hovis, Bisto and Mr Kipling. Smash can live out its declining years in the company of old friends.

Ad Hominem

We'll end where we started, with some trivia on that Smash Martians TV advertising campaign, whose creative director was John Webster of agency BMP (Boase Massimi Pollitt). His team included Chris Wilkins and Roger Shipley, whose script for the original 1973 ad was inspired by an old Bob Newhart sketch.

The Martian parts were spoken by voice-over artist Peter Hawkins, who in an illustrious career gave us such favourites as Bill and Ben2, Zippy from Rainbow, and the Daleks and the Cybermen from Doctor Who. He also provided the voice of Frankie Mouse in the original radio series of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

The Martians were only one of John Webster's many successes. He was also responsible for Cresta Bear, the cool sunglasses-clad polar bear who bellowed 'It's frothy, man' after every swig. Then there's the Honey Monster, the outsized Sugar Puffs-eating furry orange ogre, who was convinced that actor Henry McGee was his 'mummy'. Webster created some of the most memorable beer adverts, too, notably the John Smith's campaign involving comedian Jack Dee and some performing penguins. With this body of work behind him, perhaps it was only a matter of time before Webster was selected to produce party political broadcasts for Tony Blair, helping him to a landslide victory in the 1997 general election.

1Potato flakes make excellent ground bait for anglers, we're told.2Hawkins invented the 'flobbadob' gibberish language, which he called 'oddle poddle'.

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