The ADgenda: this week's most offensive advert

Fifty years of Flash.

Flash is waving a red rag to a bull, gleefully taunting the British female population with its 50th birthday celebrations. Not content with enraging Londoners with its Underground advertising campaign during the Olympics ("Imagine London is your flat and the world's your mum. Don't you want to clean your flat ready for your mum's visit?"), which resulted in otherwise dead-eyed commuters spluttering with indignation at the idea that their city is a shithole the rest of the time (and that's just fine by the corporate fat cats) but once the global eye was momentarily resting on this little backwater, it was time metaphorically to shove your dirty dinner plates under the sofa.

The saccharine theme song jauntily bounces over the top of a montage of housewives with fixed smiles concentrating very hard on wiping a bin lid with a cloth. Years pass but the dedication to their womanly duty remains – all that alters is the height of the hairdos.

Fifty years down the line, it's worth taking a look back at the world Flash was born into. It's 1962 and a large proportion of the female population has managed to shake off the stifling 1950s pristine housewife tag. These women are about to embark on an adventure of discovery – exploring their bodies, experimenting with drugs and pushing the limitations of gender boundaries. 

Meanwhile, amid all this societal flux, a new cleaning product is being launched, the makers of which take one look around at the newly bohemian landscape and promptly set to work putting women back in their place. Know your limits. So this is what Flash is celebrating and they have a lot to celebrate. Fifty years later, millions of bottles are still being sold despite no attempt whatsoever to give a voice to the thousands of families who don't conform to mummy cooking in the kitchen, daddy smoking in the lounge. The first female prime minister, the contraceptive pill and the slow crawl towards equal pay in the workplace have all come to pass and the Flash ad execs have staunchly dug their heads deeper into the sand. Progress? Pah. Gender liberation? Bloody hippies. Fifty years of Flash, 50 years of tired old stereotypes.

A woman's work: a 1960s housewife. Chaloner Woods/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.