Why advertisements aimed at women are still sexist

I honestly thought this kind of lobotomised thinking died out in the Mad Men world, says Alison Graham

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Why advertisements aimed at women are still sexist
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Alison Graham

I don’t mind dropping a couple of IQ points to watch This Old Thing: the Vintage Clothes Show (Wednesdays, Channel 4). I like Dawn O’Porter; she’s clever and engaging, though she overdoes the pert, eye-popping thing. It sends her too far into territory last seen in 1960s game shows where models mooned over fridges. You don’t need to do it, Dawn!

But, putting such small considerations aside, This Old Thing harms no one and I’m a sucker for transformation TV. Ah, the power of a pair of 1970s’ leather hotpants to make someone’s life complete. (In case you haven’t seen it, O’Porter persuades women to zhuzh up their wardrobes with some well-chosen second-hand clothes.)

So, I’ll happily sit for an hour as O’Porter does her best to persuade women that, no, vintage clothes don’t smell and, yes, they will look absolutely delightful in a boxy 1980s plaid jacket. You’ ll have gathered this is a series aimed squarely at women, which explains why This Old Thing’s ad breaks are pits of oestrogen-drenched witlessness.

There was a time when I thought we had reached a nadir of female representation in commercial breaks with Boots’ now mercifully abandoned, wretched Here Come the Girls campaigns, where hordes of women squealed over cheap gifts as that execrable song added to the cacophony. I was wrong.

I thought that now women in television dramas are tough, complex characters with depth and emotional intelligence, their fictional commercial counterparts would be similarly evolved. I was wrong.

I thought that now clever women present clever documentaries, we have moved into the sunshine from the Dark Ages. I was wrong. Because I have seen an advert where a grinning, clenchingly coy woman asks me, “Are you beach ready..?” And then she looks and points towards the floor. Now, as we can see only her top half we must wonder exactly what she means by this glance. What is she looking at, we must wonder. Are we “beach ready” (now there’s a phrase that should be banished to the sexist lexicon along with “flaunting her curves” and “loses the baby weight”)... where, exactly?

This woman goes on to insist, “You’ve always got to be ready down there.” But what does this mean? That we’ve swept under the kitchen table before we pack the egg and cress sandwiches and the windbreak? I don’t think so. Because this woman lets us into a significant moment in her life – she was at a friend’s house when suddenly everyone decided to strip off for a pool party.

But wait, says the woman, she hesitated because she wasn’t sure she was “beach ready… [down there]”. But, you know what, it turns out that because she’d used a particular brand of shaver, she actually was.

Well, thank God for that, is all I can say. You dodged a bullet by applying forethought to your intimate husbandry. Just imagine if you’d had the equivalent of a bubble-perm down there. The shame! Your friends would probably kill you and dance about on your grave.

I honestly thought this kind of lobotomised thinking died out in the Mad Men world of the 1960/70s with those TTK ads (two tarts in the kitchen) where women discussed how they could get their whites bright. And before you ask, TTK was how they were referred to. I’m not being rude.

But no. Because after this woman asked me if I was beach ready down there as she tried to sell me a shaver for a “lady”, another woman (again this is right-on Channel 4) bounced up in another ad and tried to make me buy a mobile phone. She grinned a lot and took pictures of handbags, then she met her friend, who also grinned a lot. The implication being: “This mobile phone is so easy to use even a daft woman like you can make it work”.

Well, ad people, I have a message of my own for you. You can all push off. And as for what’s going on “down there”, mind your own business, Wilkinson Sword.

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