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That joke isn't funny anymore

Oooh matron 
March 16, 2010 -- Today the Daily Mail (UK) ran an unsigned item about a West Midlands bus company that was using a large naughty nurse ad, with the clever tag line "Ooooh matron!," to promote its route to the hospital. Nursing representatives and National Health Service officials asked the Diamond Bus Company to pull the ad, arguing that it trivialized and sexualized the profession, making it more difficult for real nurses to do their work. But the company refused, noting that it needed to create a "bright and positive brand" and that the ad had been "vetted" by a "group of nurses" who agreed it was "funny." However, something can be "funny" and at the same time promote a harmful stereotype. These aren't just jokes about some random profession; they're about a disempowered profession that has been the subject of the same bimbo stereotype for decades. The image really does undermine the profession's standing among career seekers and others, as recent research in the UK has shown. Please help those in the corporate world understand that the image of nursing matters as much as the need for a "bright and positive brand," and that in any case there are ways to promote services without the naughty nurse.

The Daily Mail really couldn't improve on the ad copy, so the piece's headline was: "Ooooh Matron! Upset nurses demand bus company removes 'demeaning' advert promoting bus route to hospital." According to the article, the bus route links "Worcester city centre with the Worcestershire Royal Hospital." A photo with the article reveals that the enormous ad covers the back of the bus, and shows an attractive young female model in an obvious naughty nurse outfit--a short, tight, sleeveless white dress with a cut-out area to display cleavage that it's safe to say no real nurse would wear. The model smiles, with one hand on her hip and the other pointing a stethoscope at the camera, a popular naughty nurse pose. "Ooooh matron!" is in enormous text at the top, while smaller text near the bottom says:  "Up to every 30 minutes to the Royal Hospital, 7 days a week."

The item reports that a spokesman for the Worcestershire Acute Hospitals NHS Trust says "a number of nurses" have expressed the view that the ads are "derogatory" to nurses, and that the trust has asked the company to remove the ads. In addition, the piece quotes the criticism of Shaunee Irvine, "a nurse and Royal College of Nursing steward at the hospital." She explains:

Using this kind of imagery to portray nurses is clichéd and, frankly, an insult to the intelligence of most people and it's clear that it demeans nurses and devalues the nursing profession. Nurses object to the trivialisation and gratuitous sexualisation of nursing, not least because it can risk fuelling a mistaken impression of nurses among some people, and this makes our already difficult job even more challenging.

That's a pretty good statement of what's wrong with the image. The naughty nurse has become a cliché, but it's one that remains powerful, and it does indeed undermine real nurses' claims to adequate respect and clinical resources. A 2008 study at the University of Dundee (Scotland) found that the television image of nurses as "brainless, sex mad bimbos" discouraged academically advanced primary school students from choosing the profession. This image of workplace sexuality is not compatible with a modern science profession of men and women who use their years of college-level education to save lives and improve patient outcomes.

However, the Daily News reports that the bus company has rejected the request to pull the ad, because it's just "harmless fun." The company's "head of operations" Stephen Bryce says the campaign was designed to show that the bus was not (in the piece's words) a "boring alternative to the car" and that the ad had been "vetted by a group of nurses before being approved."

We wanted to create a bright and positive brand that would not only attract passengers from our competitors but also encourage car users to use the bus. On several of our colour-coded routes we used humorous characters as adverts on the back of the bus to promote that particular service. In the case of the [route] 37, as it served the hospital, we decided to use an image of a nurse, and in the process we showed the draft to a group of nurses who told us that they found the advert funny. The advert is simply to provide a message that we provide a transport service into the hospital - a place which has its own parking issues - and put a smile on people's faces.

Oh--now we get it! A smile! What could be wrong with that? Advertisers often seem to think that explaining the point of an ad should resolve any objections to their naughty nurse imagery. Believe it or not, though, nurses actually can understand why the company created the ad. But the problem is not that nurses don't understand the ad, or that the company was not trying to hurt nurses, or even that increasing the use of public transport would be a great way to reduce parking problems and improve the environment. The problem is that the ad is yet another toxic spill in a sea that is already full of naughty nurse imagery presenting nursing as a profession of, well, "brainless, sex mad bimbos." And the bus company does not have to intend that in order for it to be the effect, just as a driver would not need to intend to hurt a pedestrian in order to do so. In fact, it seems to us that the ad only works because of the naughty nurse stereotype--without that, viewers might have been baffled at the sight of a health worker in that outfit. Would the bus company have advertised for a route to a financial district with an image of a banker in lingerie? ("Ooooh loan officer!") Some nurses may have told the company the ad was fine. But that doesn't make it fine.

We urge the Diamond Bus Company and all other companies to consider whether they could possibly market their products--yes, even health-related products, like a bus to the hospital--without suggesting yet again that nurses are brainless bimbos.


A representative of the Diamond Bus Network told us recently that the "Ooooh matron!" ads remain up on the buses despite concerns from nurses. But he said that as of June 6, 2010, another bus company will take over line 37 to the Worcester hospital. The Diamond representative did not know the name of the bus company that would be taking over or whether the ads would remain on the buses.

Please contact the Diamond Bus Network on its online contact form or call (011-44) 121-557-7337 aand explain how the ads have undermined nursing. Please ask the company not to depict nurses this way in the future. Thank you!


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