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By Ashleigh Green on

Delia Smith: Original Influencer?

To understand how influencers became so ubiquitous, we must take a trip back in time—to the 1970s, when TV chef Delia Smith became a phenomenon.

Often when you think of television, your mind skips straight to your favourite programmes. But television is more than shows, it’s also advertising, researching and scheduling. All of the aforementioned elements are in explored in the National Science and Media Museum’s Experience TV gallery, but this post will focus specifically on advertising and the history of influencing.

In the present day, influencing as a profession is immediately associated with the Instagram-famous who use the app as a platform to promote products in exchange for payment. These characters are often borne out of reality television shows such as Love Island or Geordie Shore. But were these the first celebrity trend-setters to come out of TV? Of course not. To understand how these modern influencers came to be, we must take a trip back in time—to the 1970s.

The 1970s have been characterised as a time of change, a pivotal point in world history. They were also the years that fostered the early career of Delia Smith, a British television chef after whom the term ‘The Delia Effect’ was coined. ‘The Delia Effect’ can be defined as the high-profile recommendation (usually by a celebrity) of a product which in turn results in overnight success. This was first demonstrated by Smith when she was offered her first cookery show, Family Fare (1973–75), during which she recommended a lemon zester. After the episode aired, Britain suffered a shortage of lemon zesters… and this was as Smith’s popularity was only just beginning.

How to Cook by Delia Smith

Smith’s fame continued to rise, culminating in the 1990s with her television show How to Cook, on which her frequent use of eggs in recipes caused a 10% increase in British egg sales. In addition, Smith’s recommendation of using skewers to check whether a cake is thoroughly baked caused a 35% increase in sales. Therefore, by 2001, Smith’s impact on the food industry could no longer be ignored and the term ‘The Delia Effect’ was introduced into the Collins English Dictionary. It may seem surprising to a contemporary audience that Delia’s impact was considered a phenomenon. But it truly was, and it occurred in a world unequipped to deal with it. In fact, the BBC was forced to begin warning companies as to when their products would be used in Smith’s programmes to allow them to prepare for the inevitable surge in sales.

However, this was essentially free advertising for brands on Smith’s behalf as she refused payment in return for featuring products and only began advertising for food companies such as Waitrose after retiring from TV. Smith argued that paid promotion lacked integrity and her audience would begin to distrust her opinions. Furthermore, at the time, advertising foodstuffs on a broadcasted programme violated BBC policy. This therefore gave Smith’s recommendations a level of credibility that is lacking in product promotion today.

Retro baking products

Product promotion in television has evolved drastically since Delia Smith’s days at the BBC, and the genre of reality TV is comparable to a multi-faceted advertising campaign. Take, for example, a show such as Love Island which essentially transforms ordinary people into trend-setting influencers. Initially, it appears as though their careers as advertisers are launched on apps such as Instagram upon exiting the infamous Villa. However, this is simply false as the stars are consistently plied with free products such as Samsung phones (‘I Got a Text’) and clothing (from brands such as I Saw It First and Missguided.) This trains the stars in how to approach and promote a brand deal—the girls are often seen capturing selfies in the Villa, which emphasises the camera quality of the Samsung phone they are using. Therefore, Love Island is essentially survival training for a career as an influencer in which ordinary people use TV as a platform to boost their profile in order to better engage with brands. Unlike Delia Smith, who effectively promoted products by accident rather than as a business exchange.

Comparing the two demonstrates how product placement in television shows has evolved from genuine product use into a mutually beneficial business transaction between star and company. However, through exploring sales statistics, it is clear that the development of the relationship between advertiser and company has had little effect on the consumer. This is evidenced by Missguided who sponsored Love Island in 2018, following which they received a 40% increase in sale each night the show aired. Notably, the number almost matches the figures surrounding Smith’s impact (35% sales increase on skewers). This highlights how pliable consumers are to products advertised through television. However, by 2019, Missguided gave way to a new clothing sponsor for Love Island—I Saw It First—begging the question of why, as the promotion received from the show clearly increased sales. Perhaps it was the increasing conversation around the show criticising the lack of different body types portrayed? Ultimately, this highlights the detrimental aspects of product promotion, as brands and influencers can unwillingly be associated with a negative discourse that may be damaging to their public reputations.

In conclusion, it is clear the likes of Delia Smith paved the way for future influencers by establishing a direct correlation between celebrity endorsement and sales. However, Smith also understood the dangers and consequences of product promotion whereas contemporary influencers overlook these (allowing their reputation and integrity to constantly be called into question). As a result, it can be argued that calling Delia Smith, the ‘Original Influencer’ is a fairly accurate title. In fact, Smith’s credibility and characterisation as a trustworthy and passionate individual may suggest she is the purest, most uncorrupted form of an influencer. And one that reminds consumers to consider the authenticity of the products advertised to them on television.

If you wish to learn more about the history of advertising and its iconic figures (including Delia Smith), visit Experience TV on Level 3 of the National Science and Media Museum.

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