According to the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, we cook to show we are civilised. So the rise of the Superchef must say something about how much we value the idea of civilisation. Whether on television, web, books or gadgets, they inspire us to see the preparation and presentation of food not just as a necessary chore, but a potential pleasure and focus for friendship, family life and fun.

Collins English Dictionary’s listing of ‘doing a Delia’ (meaning to cook ‘properly’) demonstrates just how engrained the Superchef has become in contemporary British culture. However much we love take-aways and convenience foods, our fascination with these gastronomic gurus reveals a profound desire to connect with each other via the kitchen.

The link between cooking and our desire to be civilised is not just about throwing chic dinner parties, of course. Food is a deeply political issue, raising all sorts of moral and ethical questions. It’s interesting to note how several celebrity chefs have stepped out of the kitchen and on to the campaign trail to back causes from animal welfare to healthy eating.

Consider Jamie Oliver, whose 2005 efforts on behalf of the nation’s school-dinner eaters (however reluctant some of them might have been!) prompted pledges by the UK Government to invest in the quality of school food. More recently he has campaigned to spread basic cooking skills amongst the population. The better we are at cooking, the more choices we have about what we eat – which must be a good thing if we want to move towards healthier or more sustainable diets.

Food is a deeply political issue, raising all sorts of moral and ethical questions

Campaigning and social marketing (i.e. using marketing techniques to further socially desirable objectives) are important areas of teaching and research at the Open University Business School and our partner organisation the Institute for Social Marketing. I thought it would be instructive in this blog to analyse Jamie Oliver’s work in the light of some of the theory we profess.

For example, the Campaign Diamond (Baguley, 2007) is a simple model which can be used by organisations and individuals to gauge how likely a campaign is to succeed before they commit valuable time and resources to going public with it. The model depicts the ‘space’ available for an effective campaign as dependent on four ‘facets’ of a diamond. A balanced profile across each facet is a good indication that your campaign will fly.

The first facet is the problem underlying the campaign. This has to be something significant you can articulate clearly and unambiguously, or you risk demotivating distortion as the campaign develops. For example, some critics accused Jamie Oliver of selectively stereotyping ‘unhealthy eaters’ in his recent campaign.He’s hit back that he was presenting a balanced snapshot of a the issue of poor diet which affects people from all sorts of backgrounds, and that perhaps his detractors just don’t want to admit it. This kind of single-minded focus on a problem can appear simplistic, but has the long-term benefit of maintaining clarity of message.

Jamie Oliver tasting a cocktail [image © copyright BBC] Copyrighted image Credit: BBC
Jamie Oliver tasting a cocktail.

The second facet is social authorisation. This is to do with judging the zeitgeist relative to a particular issue. Mounting concerns about the future health of the nation because of diets high in fat, salt and sugar (mainstays of the processed food of which the UK is disproportionately fond) have led to public anxiety about nutrition. Social authorisation is essential to a campaign’s credibility with news media and decision makers. The political impact of the school dinners crusade is testimony to Jamie Oliver’s good judgement in this respect.

The third facet is operational capacity. This means the ability to convert the enthusiasm generated by the campaign into action. It’s hardly worth firing people up about an issue if you then can’t give them the opportunity to do something about it. Here Jamie Oliver scores a blinder – harnessing the power of social networking so that those reached by his recent campaign share their cooking skills with others. The internet is a powerful tool in this respect, and has the further advantage of popularity with groups that more staid calls to action might not reach.

The final facet of the diamond is the opportunity for social value. This boils down to how big a difference you think the campaign will make. It helps to be as sure as you can about what a campaign will achieve before you launch it, and to have an evaluation method in place in advance so you can see if and when it’s worked. This is where many worthy initiatives come unstuck.

On the other hand, the precise effect of ventures such as Jamie Oliver’s cooking campaign must be hard to calculate in advance simply because of the potential numbers involved. It may be that the most lasting impact lies beyond the relatively straightforward metrics of participation or media coverage in long-term political effects (witness the Essex Superchef’s influential audience with the Commons Health Select Committee in November 2008).

There’s a lot to be learned from these examples, even for those of us without access to the impressive resources which Jamie Oliver has exploited so imaginatively. Articulating a compelling case, making sure it resonates with people, having systems in place which can convert sympathy into action, and being clear about what you are trying to achieve, are as important to someone campaigning for a new zebra crossing as they are to a Superchef bent on changing the nation’s eating habits.

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