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"Time for my sponge bath"

September 30, 2004 -- An article by Chris Johnson in today's Vancouver Sun, "Union 'deeply offended' by sexy-nurse TV ad; Radio station pulls promo after BCNU complains it sends 'the wrong message,'" described a successful campaign by a British Columbia nurses union to protest a stereotypical "naughty nurse" TV ad promoting a local radio station. The story is notable not only because the nurses got an unusually sensitive response from the radio station (especially for the broadcast media), but for the many opposing reader messages that accompany the story's online posting, which provide valuable insight into some of the roots of nursing's media problems and the challenge of resolving them. We congratulate the BCNU for spearheading this campaign and pursuing it until the damaging images were gone.

The TV ad, for radio station Z95.3, reportedly showed a "group of nurses wearing skimpy outfits, dancing and singing in a Britney-Spears style music video" around a hospital nursing station, until an elderly patient calls out: "It's time for my sponge bath." The British Columbia Nurses Union asked its 25,000 members to contact Z95.3, the station's owner, the ad's creator, and national broadcasting bodies about the ad, which union president Debra McPherson described as portraying nurses as "willing to abandon their patients so they could sing and dance." In response, the station ended the ad. Its operations manager reportedly stated that the station did not intend to disrespect nursing, noting that it had heard from "several extremely articulate nurses" and that it was "extremely aware of the challenges facing nurses who are being asked to do more with less." McPherson said she hoped other media actors would follow Z95.3's lead in examining how they show nurses, "not only because it's the right thing to do, but also because nurses are always willing to speak out when we see our profession being denigrated." As of October 6, the paper's readers had posted nearly 100 messages (some from the same reader) in response to the story. Some expressed support for BCNU and the nurses, but many appeared to be variations on the following themes: "get a sense of humour;" "[m]ost of the nurses I've encountered are chubsters;" ""[a]nother example of out-of-control union power;" "Deb [the union president] is just jealous because she weighs 300 lbs.;" "hypersensitive self-important martyrs;" "[t]ypical political correctness hysteria."

Of course, many of the responses seem to reveal misogyny or partisan political animus, but another important theme is the confident assurance that the ad could not possibly have any effect on how people really feel about nurses, since it's "just a joke" with "actors" rather than real nurses. However, those who have actually studied the effects of media products, including the public health community, have concluded that such products do shape public attitudes and actions. Recent research has shown that fictional television programming--including soap operas and sitcoms--has a significant effect on people's health-related views and conduct. Government and public health groups now work hard to influence the health-related messages that appear in such programs. All of us are affected by fictional media, even though we know that what we are seeing is not "real." In the particular case of this ad, the problem is that one of the key stereotypes that has affected social attitudes toward nurses for decades has been that of the "naughty nurse," a vision of the profession as being primarily about serving the sexual needs of patients and physicians in the workplace. This stereotype, which associates the profession with feminine sexuality, is a key reason why so few men consider nursing as a career, even today, when the world confronts a critical shortage of skilled nurses.

See Chris Johnson's article "Union 'deeply offended' by sexy-nurse TV ad; Radio station pulls promo after BCNU complains it sends 'the wrong message'" in the September 30, 2004 edition of the Vancouver Sun.

For more information on how fictional media affects nursing, see several recent recent Center FAQ's below.

Come on. Even if the mass media does ignore nursing, or present it inaccurately, how can that possibly affect nursing in real life?

OK, fine. I can see that some media probably affects how people think about and act toward nursing, like maybe a respected newspaper or current affairs show on TV. But how can some TV drama, sitcom or commercial affect people that way? People know enough not to take that stuff seriously!

I get that the public health community and even Hollywood itself believes that the entertainment media has a big effect on real world health. But is there any actual research showing it affects what people think and do about health issues like nursing?

Well, if all that research shows how influential Hollywood is on health care--and Hollywood itself claims credit for improving the world through "medical accuracy"--why won't it admit that its portrayal of nursing is equally influential, and take steps to fix it? Especially since the nursing shortage is now a global public health crisis.



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