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"Helen Wheels, R.N." -- CompuCaddy pulls battleaxe ad

July 25, 2005 -- Diversified Designs has pulled a print ad for CompuCaddy computer stands that showed an unhinged nurse--"Helen Wheels"--who was furious because the prior shift had left the computer battery uncharged. The Kentucky company acted after several nurses pointed out that the ads, run for six months in health industry magazines, exploited the regressive "battleaxe" stereotype. In a telephone call with the Center today, Diversified Designs president Greg Likins profusely apologized to nurses for the negative effect the ad had on nursing's image. He also noted that a follow up ad featuring a happy "Helen Wheels" with a fully charged CompuCaddy will also be pulled. The angry ad appeared in magazines for six months, yet the company agreed to pull it after receiving only the third letter of protest. This shows the importance of acting quickly and collectively to improve negative images of nursing, including by alerting the Center to poor images.

In the CompuCaddy ad run in the July 2005 issue of Health Data Management, the "nurse" points her finger and bares her teeth. She wears a traditional white uniform--complete with a cap--and her name tag reads: "HELEN WHEELS, R.N." The caption: "The morning shift would like a word with you!" The point, of course, is that the company's products help you avoid dealing with crazy-angry people like this because its batteries last longer.

It might be possible for an ad to take this basic approach without causing a problem. It would be understandable for a nurse or any other health worker to be displeased if some prior shift left equipment in an unusable state. However, the name tag's "hell on wheels" pun and Helen's extreme fury suggest that she is someone to be avoided even when she has no good reason to be angry. It seems likely that the ad creators were looking for some image that would resonate with people as "the co-worker you don't want to annoy," and this is what they came up with: the traditional nurse battleaxe stereotype. The archaic elements in the uniform reinforce the stereotype.

Some have argued that the battleaxe image took root as an expression of patients' feelings of vulnerability and discomfort at being at the mercy of female caregivers who would normally be in a subservient social position. Of course, the most obvious reference point in popular culture is Nurse Ratched from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," though the visibly unhinged quality of the CompuCaddy "nurse" may be somewhat more reminiscent of Annie Wilkes from "Misery." The battleaxe image still appears from time to time, perhaps reflecting society's continuing discomfort with powerful women, and its inability to reconcile the apparently conflicting ideas of nursing and assertive conduct. Of course, these sad, petty martinets of nursing do have a parallel image in medicine. It is that of the brilliant but prickly physician specialist, whose hostility is often viewed as a by-product of the intense professional commitment that makes him or her such a star, rather than as a sign of dangerous psychosis or sexual frustration. (See "House.")

The Center thanks Diversified Designs for pulling the ads, for its apologies, and for its promise to refrain from using further negative nursing images.

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