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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear