Helen Purves All you need to know about Helen Purves. And, indeed, much more.

16Aug/124

Modern feminism, or: Up your froo-froo, Femfresh (no thanks to the ASA)

Femfresh poster: Woo Hoo for my Froo FrooI've never had much to do with hardcore feminism. Frankly, I've no need to. I'm paid as much as my male equivalents; I quite happily work in the tech industry attending events alongside groups of many men without fear of intimidation and have never felt that my gender has adversely affected my life at all.

Sure, men have tried to belittle me. But I have an automatic look that gets released on any idiot trying to pull the "look at the silly little woman who has no brain" gig. I I've to call it the Whatever Assumption You're Currently Making, Stop Making It Unless You Have No Fear For Your Personal Welfare look (it's close to my You Obviously Have No Particular Emotional Attachment Towards Your Genitalia look).

Despite spending a great deal of time with Misogynist Grampa, I was primarily brought up by my grandmother and mother - for Pratchett fans, my father fondly and accurately describes the latter as a cross between Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax. You don't mess with women in my family. We won't scream at you, or get violent (unless you're physically attacking us - in which case, watch yourself); you will be subjected to either sub-zero frostiness, wry and cutting wit, or overbearing politeness which suddenly makes you feel like a complete bastard. That's the aim, anyway.

As a result of my tendency to disperse uppity males much like Fairy Liquid dissolves bacon fat, I've not noticed enough inequality in my daily life to remember any of it. Most of the tropes I've encountered about women should act/look etc have come from other women. Therefore most of the "feminism" I comes across severely annoys me due to its illogical nature.

Women's magazines? They're commercial entities; if stupid idiots didn't buy them, they wouldn't exist. Girl Geeks? If you stopped infantilising yourselves and defining yourselves by your gender ("Boy Geeks", anyone?) by using pre-existing gender stereotypes in your marketing, like cupcakes, knitting and liberal sprayings of the colour pink, perhaps your male colleagues might take you more seriously. Crèches at conferences? Jesus Christ, get your bloody partner to hang on to the baby for a bit - if you decide to have children, then you (both of you) also automatically make the decision to make sacrifices for those children, whether you want to or not. And I'll believe your annoying spiel about your kid becoming an astronaut when I see it, as your child is statistically far more likely to become a smug, self-entitled douchebag like yourself.*

However, I draw the line at pure misinformation. That's why I loathe and despise Femfresh. Their range of "feminine hygiene" products are not only loathsomely packaged, but they're also 100% unnecessary and, according to your local GP, potentially harmful. Vaginas are self-cleaning. They only require regular washing with water. Introduction of foreign substances can cause horrible things: yeast infections like Thrush if you're lucky, and worse if you're not.

The whole thing - the fact they even exist - gets on my tits. With things like makeup and women's magazines, well, that's choice. But Femfresh going around miseducating women about an area everyone, male or female, tends to feel more insecure about than almost anything else is absolutely abhorrent. There is no need for these products. They are pointless. This is the kind of crap they dole out to women in America, with their constant gynaecology appointments and disposable douche bags (actual bags for actual douching of the inside of your body, as though something evil is living inside of you that must be expelled). This is Britain: we have the NHS here. We officially medically acknowledge the self-cleaning properties of elements of our bodies. This must not change.

And that's without even taking into consideration their obnoxious marketing. As a writer - and an adult - I take as much exception to being told my vagina is a "froo-froo" by an international cosmetics company as I do to the tech industry labelling me as a "girl".

I am a woman, and as such I have a vagina. If I choose to call myself otherwise then that's up to me: but don't attempt to prey on my physical and psychological vulnerabilities (or the vulnerabilities of others) in order to infantilise me purely on the basis of what genitals I got landed with in the childbirth lottery.

So, after seeing their horrendous adverts splashed on billboards and then checking out their even more obnoxious Facebook campaign, I complained to the Advertising Standards Authority. There were a very great many entertaining articles about the uproar at the time (see here, here, here and here for my favourites), but for once I wanted to go all the way: like others who complained, I needed to feel that something might actually come of all this outrage. Femfresh had gone too far.

I wrote a lengthy and extremely detailed account of every aspect of my issue with the advertising campaign, which unfortunately I didn't keep. Today, I received the following response which I will repeat in full (although the name and contact details at the end have been redacted).

Dear Ms Purves,

Thank you for contacting the ASA. I’m sorry to learn that this ad has caused you concern.

We assess the content of ads against our Code. Amongst other things, we take action if we feel that an ad is likely to provoke serious or widespread offence, to mislead or to cause significant harm. We have reviewed this ad in light of your complaint but I’m afraid that we do not have grounds for further action under our Code.

I should start by explaining that the ASA has no influence over the creative decisions taken by advertisers (or the agencies that work on their behalf) to use a particular character, situation or theme in their ad campaigns. We can only consider intervention when there is convincing evidence to suggest that our Codes are likely to have been breached; for example, when the content of an ad is likely to cause serious or widespread offence, poses a significant risk of causing harm, or is likely to materially mislead consumers about the product or service that is being advertised.

We contacted the advertiser in this instance (without revealing your identity) with a view to gaining a better understanding of the ad. They explained that the decision to use words such as “froo-froo” in this recent ad campaign, in place of the word “vagina”, was taken as a result of an extensive survey of women to establish their take on the subject being advertised. As a result of this survey, the advertiser established a trend in the use of euphemisms to describe intimate parts of the body, and they found that this was done in a light-hearted way between the women asked. The survey resulted in 189 different ‘names’ being given by the participants, of which the advertiser decided to choose six of the top ten for their ad campaign.

We appreciate the concerns that you have raised and that you find the ad distasteful, however we consider that in general terms the wider audience are likely to interpret these ads as being a light-hearted take on a personal and often sensitive subject rather than see them as being demeaning or derogatory towards women. Although we appreciate that ads concerning sanitary products will not appeal to everyone, and acknowledge that some consumers may find the content of these ads distasteful, we consider that the ads are unlikely to cause a degree of offence that would breach the Code.

We note that some perfumed products have a pH value that is different to that of the skin and can therefore cause irritation, especially in sensitive areas, and that Femfresh is designed to be an alternative to such products. The pH scale is a measure of how acid or alkaline something is. As we understand it, the product undergoes testing at independent laboratories, the results of which are reviewed by board-certified dermatologists and gynaecologists in accordance with relevant EU Directives. Dermatology is a branch of medicine dealing with the skin and its appendages (hair, sweat glands, etc) and Gynaecology obviously refers to the surgical specialty dealing with health of the female reproductive system. We consider that the product is designed to be sensitive and work with the natural makeup of skin in sensitive areas and in light of this, do not think the ad is likely to mislead people to their detriment. At present we have no reason to believe that the product is likely to cause harm and given the extensive testing that it undergoes, we do not consider that we have reason to challenge the advertiser further in relation to this point.

In any event, we have received confirmation from the advertiser that the ad that you have referred to is no longer appearing, and there are currently no plans to include similar statements in future ads. We’ve also become aware that the advertiser has removed their Facebook page.

I realise this may disappoint you, but thank you nonetheless for taking the time to contact us with your concerns. The ASA website, www.asa.org.uk, contains more information about the work we do.

Now, the nice bloke from the ASA makes the excellent point that the product has been well-tested and that advertising agencies can make the creative choices they like: I'm happy with that. This is a detailed, well written and comprehensive reply - even though I disagree with it. But what I'm really, really happy about is that Femfresh VOLUNTARILY withdrew their campaign (or at least let it end), and won't run a similar one again.

70s Australian Femfresh advert - 'When your body isn't discreet... you should be'But don't expect to see them completely vanish off the face of the earth. The thing is, Femfresh has actually been about for a while - check out this blog article showing loads of old FemFresh ads from the 70s.. My best friend, a district nurse, says that until now they've always marketed themselves at older women - who, due to issues with incontinence/mobility often actually do see the need for this kind of product. And now they've cornered that market, they obviously felt the need to try for another: insecure teens and young women. It's likely that the older women who make up the majority of Femfresh's current customers started using the disgusting gunk back in the olden days: and I think I can safely say that however beauty-obsessed and vapid young women currently are, they're obviously more savvy than those who fell for Femfresh's wiles back in the day.

See, this is much more of a victory than an anti-Femfresh ASA ruling would have been because instead of my adversary being unwillingly defeated they have independently decided, with their actual brains, that calling vaginas froo-froos is momentously stupid. They have realised that marketing products this way will not work. That's what makes this a truly sweet victory: because it wasn't a government body forcing Femfresh to stand down, but an acknowledgement by Femfresh themselves that humanity in general just won't put up with this crap. They looked at the volume of complaints, from intimidating bodies like the ASA as well as even more intimidating social media outrage (obviously something they misjudged horribly), and figured it wasn't worth it.

This is a victory for women: you might read celebrity gossip magazines and buy your female offspring Barbies, fellow vagina owners, but you do draw a line. And Femfresh were most decidedly on the wrong side of it.

*Oh, and a minor Twitter celeb/mother who should know better once told me I'm "just bitter, because nobody's ever loved me enough to want to give me a baby." Well, if that's the kind of idiot motherhood turns intelligent women into than I want none of it. However, given the violence of my own mother's reaction to this statement (and the "It's my human right to drag screaming babies to conferences/cinemas" argument) I'm fairly optimistic on this point.

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10Jun/126

18 patents is just not enough: an open letter to L’Oreal

Dear L'Oreal,

For several weeks now I've been seeing - and let's be honest, ignoring -  your adverts for L'Oreal Inoa on TV. It's not like you actually sell the stuff in shops, after all.  Only in salons.

However, it just struck me you've been making an extraordinary claim that I've been completely overlooking.  Let's take a look at your advert and see if you can spot it.

Did you see it?  Yes, it took me a moment to see past the shiny floaty hair and vacuous idiots too, but you've apparently filed 18 patents.  EIGHTEEN.  Wow.  This must be awesome hair colour.   I mean, eighteen pending patents (18)? You must have patented just EVERYTHING.  Like, obviously the dye itself, then maybe - ooh, important things like... um, the application process, and, um... other groundbreaking stuff.

But is 18 (eighteen) patents (pending) enough?  As I said, I've been checking Twitter/making cups of tea/picking my nose through your advert for weeks now, and not once have I taken note of your frankly mind-boggling number of (pending) patents.  And even now, I'm thinking - well, eighteen's a lot, but will it make me Google your website to look for another salon?  My salon doesn't use Inoa, you see, and I'm assuming your advert's aimed at attracting new customers.  And when I clicked on the "Salon Locator" tab I just got the L'Oreal Professionnel [sic] Facebook page, so you're not exactly making it easy for me, are you?  Frankly I don't think a mere eighteen patents, most if not all of them presumably still pending, is enough to lure me in.

However, I'm not a problems person: I'm a solutions person.  I'm sure you understand meaningless bullshit phrases like that, but I'll break it down for you anyway: I've come up with something to help you.  Let's bump up those patents (the pending ones) to a more impressive 19.  I hereby reveal: L'OREAL PROTEKTALOX!

Envelope with sketch: lady wearing showercap with extended flap at back and another flap at the fringe

That's right: you really are seeing what you think you're seeing and I know, it's freaking REVOLUTIONARY.  Ignore for one moment that it's been drawn on the back of an envelope: the fact I evidently have bills to pay means you know I've put proper thought into this.  But I'm not in it for the money - as Alex Tabarrok said in his 2009 TED talk, we need innovation to see us through economic crises - ideas which cross cultural and geographical boundaries.

All I'm asking for is 1/19th of your revenue from Inoa (since it will, after all, be one of the NINETEEN amazing (pending) patents key to the success of your product), £1,000,000 and a lifetime's supply of PROTEKTALOX for me and all of my 849 Twitter friends.

What does PROTEKTALOX do?  Ha.  I prefer to think of it another way: what does PROTEKTALOX NOT do?  But seriously though, what it actually does is stop dye going onto your face and pillows while you're sleeping.  I hate that.  And it has a separate flap to stop your fringe going all crooked - solving yet another problem all of us with fringes will recognise.  Keep getting dye on your face overnight?  Sick of sleeping in a shower cap?  Want to look sexier for your partner in bed?  Use PROTEKTALOX!

Yeah, you laugh now, but when you see your sales figures after you raise your pending patents to a full NINETEEN you'll be laughing on the other side of your face.  The side not covered by PROTEKTALOX.

Now it could - just could - be that name-checking your many pending but yet-to-be-processed patents could be one of those clever marketing tricks, like Olay Total Effect 7's Seven Signs of Aging (and that's not even including birthday parties - they're not on the list at all!  Silly Olay) or that time your Boswelox cream (L'Oreal Wrinkle De-Crease Collagen, I think you call it) turned out to be... well, Boswelox.  But come on - you've got more integrity than that, right?  Right...?

Yours in optimism,

Helen Purves, inventor of PROTEKTALOX (patent pending)

18Mar/121

It’s not what you’ve got (Or: Shut up about your iPad)

I'm so sick of hearing about new Apple releases.  Heck, I'm even sick of reading why other people are sick of hearing about new Apple releases. "Does it matter?" is verging on the rhetorical: even Gizmodo is starting to feel the iPad malaise.  To pardon the well-worn Purves family phrase, nobody seems to give a rat's cock any more: it's beyond a joke.  I think my favourite iPad coverage so far is Gizmodo's fun little "We Gave People an iPad 2" video, which is well worth checking out.

So why exactly are people getting so irritated about it?  Apple fanboy-ism is generally a joke because an almost religious fervour is applied to design principles and (disputed) technological advantages over Windows machines.  I'm no Windows apologist, but I'd say this usually means people are prepared to lay out far more money than is reasonable  on a machine they are unlikely to exploit as fully as it is designed to be exploited.  I feel this can best be summed up by the following amusing viral video of a frog.

Good video, right?  Yeah.  I watched it twice.  But the first time I saw that video, I was sitting on a tram: I plugged myself into my iPhone (yes, I have my own collection of Apple tech) to divert myself from an incredibly dull conversation two nearby geeks were having about what the pixel count was likely to be on the new iPad.  As I watched the frog blindly attacking imaginary ants, I wondered to myself whether the frog had considered how many pixels were on the screen of his/her owner's iPhone.  Perhaps the reason it turned so violently on its owner was not down to its disillusionment at the imaginary nature of the ants it wanted to eat, but in retribution for being forced to play its favourite game on an inferior device.  True, that's obviously at least an iPhone 4, but perhaps it was expecting a 4S?

No.  That is of course a ludicrous scenario.  Frogs are 99% unlikely to understand the difference between an iPhone 4 and an iPhone 4S - and besides, Froggish isn't listed in the languages officially supported by Siri.  What with Siri being the only discernible difference between the two devices, that's unlikely to be what's annoying the frog.  Probably the frog is just hungry.  However, were the frog in that 1% I have left open for the possibility of improbably technologically-advanced reptiles, I don't think it would be fussy about Siri either: because Siri is just software.

I can't illustrate the point I want to press any further without boring myself (and probably you, too) into endless and merciful sleep, so I'm going to delve way back into my personal internet history yet again in the hope that if I can build my argument into personal experiences that happened so long ago nobody can dispute them, I might win.  Let's see if it works.

When I was a child, my mother's father was massively into electronic typewriters, multi-use fax machines/phones and other frankly pointless gizmos.  In fact, he bought one of the first Palm Pilots.  I still have it: lord knows where it is, but I did just manage to find the collapsible keyboard which is a thing of beauty.  Here, marvel at its beauty.

Palm Pilot keyboard being opened
Assembled Palm Pilot keyboard

For me, it's like looking at an ancient arrowhead lost in the mud of a forgotten cave.  In reality, it's a bit of obsolete tech in a box full of tat in my spare room.  Each to their own.

Anyway, Grampa eventually ended up giving me this old tat, item after item, because as awesome as it was he never ended up using it.  When I got it, I'd play with it for a while - you know, input stock figures, write a to do list, write "55378008" in the calculator - then get bored and shove it in a drawer.  Palm Pilots were not designed for little children: there was nothing I could use it for.

In stark contrast, when my father got his first computer (it is impossible to date this event because (a) it feels like I've always had access to a computer and (b) my father doesn't relish being woken up in the middle of the night) my brother and I were on it like a shot.  Not because of the clicky sound it made when reading floppy disks or whatever it was that came before floppy disks, nor the exciting knowledge we were little children allowed to play on what we knew was a Grownup Thing.  What I liked was that I could play a game called Magic Maths (a very, very early text-based game I've found impossible to trace), and my maths would get better.  I don't remember that first computer: I don't remember how old I was when we got it, how much memory it could hold, what operating system it used (although I do remember it only had green text on a black screen) or anything else, but I do remember Magic Maths.  When we upgraded to a newer machine, I was allowed to hang on to the last one simply because I loved playing Magic Maths.  It wasn't about the computer, it was what I could do with it.

Fast forward to now, and I'm still the same: I don't think anyone else is different, either. A while ago I went to the launch of the new Salford University buildings at MediaCityUK, and while the work on display was impressive I have to admit I spent more time watching visitors to the open day play with the big multi-touch tables - provided, I believe, by Microsoft (you can check out how Manchester's using this technology on the Microsoft Surface website).

It's impressive technology, but when people approached it their instinct was not to marvel at the screen resolution or ask nearby helpers to list the functionality provided.  Of course not.  The first thing people did - an instinct shared by children and adults alike - was to immediately touch it: to see what moved, and how, and look at the pictures and information on the screen.  Children wanted to play games, adults wanted to see pictures and both wanted to generally marvel as stuff whooshed across the screen.  I watched for over half an hour and during that time not one man, woman or child started discussing the limitations of the operating system or the upcoming patch Microsoft was going to release to fix blah blah blah.  I can assure you that, working and socialising with the delightful geeks that I do, I have met plenty of people who would happily bore on about such things for hours.  However, the people experiencing Surface for the first time were not my colleagues: they were ordinary people.  The kind of people who simply use technology, as opposed to the tiny percentage of people who make it, or write about it, or read about it on Gizmodo.  These people were not interested in the details of how the tables worked - they were far more interested in could be done with them.

This is why I, like so many others, am increasingly sick of pointless hardware releases which include negligible improvements.  I got my first iPhone because it could do things my O2 XDA couldn't: it had better games, it could play my music, and it came with the possibility to expand with an ever-growing library of free and cheap apps.  My iPhone 4 is smaller, has a second camera, free messaging to other iPhones on a 3G connection and a very noticeable retina display.  Not a life-changing offering, but my contract was up so I switched.  But the 4S - well, it just mostly has Siri.  So basically, in terms of what your average user sees, progress is actually slowing down.

A similar thing appears to happening with iPads.  The first was revolutionary; the second had useful improvements, and the third... well, it's a bit better.  If you know what you're looking for.  Which it appears even Gizmodo staff don't (that link again).  You can still do the same things with an iPad 3 that you can with a first-gen iPad: play games, watch videos, get the internet, look rich.  Sure, it has a camera, but so does the iPad 2.  Sure, it has more pixels, but - well, you can still see stuff on it.  I'm getting bored with this now.  Reeling off iPad specs is like writing about expensive cars: great, they'll go up to 200mph, but where on earth can you legally drive at that speed?  And how long can you safely bore on about it at parties before people start making assumptions about the size of your manhood?

So, I don't care which iPad you have.  All I know is, you have one and I don't.  Good for you.

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