The incestuous vortex of cross-promotion

OK! TV is the latest addition to the bewildering circle-jerk that is Richard Desmond’s media empire.

"OK! TV kicked off to a triumphant start," said OK! magazine this week in an interview with the OK! TV host Kate Walsh. The Channel 5 show could be glad of one positive review, at least, even if the more cynical among us might suspect that due to printing deadlines it may have been written before the "triumphant start" had even gone to air.

But then this is the bewildering circle-jerk that is Richard Desmond's empire right now. OK! TV, Channel 5's new brightly coloured approximation of a couple of vapid office drones chattering about celebrities over a water cooler, promotes OK! magazine. The Daily Star and Daily Express promote OK! TV and OK! magazine, as well as giving remarkably positive reviews to the likes of the Channel 5 host Vanessa Feltz; OK! magazine has a two-page feature telling you what's coming up this week on Channel 5 . . . and so on, and so on.

"We are beyond excited by the launch of OK! TV," said the magazine's editor in a leader this week. Beyond excited!

The incestuous vortex of cross-promotion gets to the point where if you see something in a Desmond publication that isn't anything to do with another of his assets, you wonder why it's there at all. And which one is meant to be the flagship? Is Channel 5 the jewel in the crown, or is it OK!, or the Daily Express? Or are they all fighting for the title of least mediocre? It's hard to tell.

It was my own fault, really. I'd decided to watch OK! TV while reading a copy of OK! magazine. I think I got overloaded by it all. But one thing I did notice was that I was reading more than I was watching. I ended up being fascinated by Josie Gibson's Big Fat Gypsy Wedding photo shoot, leaving Kate Walsh and Matt Johnson babbling away in the background.

Of course, this being a Desmond publication, the photo shoot is to tell you that Gibson is a reporter on . . . yes, you guessed it, OK! TV. But even as someone who isn't the target audience of the mag, who couldn't really care less about celebrity culture and all the trashy awfulness therein, I found her tales of growing up in a traveller family (hence the giant pink dress and caravan) quite intriguing.

OK! TV, in comparison, is pretty shabby. Gibson is, by a bus ride, the best thing about it, chirping merrily away about celebrity tweets in that delightful Bristolian burr ("Shane Warne, he's a blancmange, in't he?"), but her segment was a rare moment that strayed beyond the otiose. The rest just makes you yearn for the understated subtlety and class of the show's predecessor, Live from Studio Five.

Besides, they're missing a trick. If they called it Daily Star Daily Express Sunday Express New! Magazine Star Magazine Daily Star on Sunday OK! TV, they'd be able to promote even more Northern & Shell goodies at one go. Surely it's only a matter of time.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty
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Boots sells lots of products used inappropriately – the morning after pill isn't one of them

The aisles are filled with items to “fix” women's bodies, but somehow preventing pregnancy is irresponsible.

As a teenager in the early Nineties, I had a favourite food: Boots Shapers Meal Replacement Chocolate Bars. There was a plain milk version, one with hazelnuts, plus one with muesli which somehow seemed healthier. I alternated which one I’d have, but I’d eat one every day. And that was all I’d eat.

Because the packet said “meal”, I told myself it was fine. Why bother drawing fine distinctions between the thing in itself and the thing in itself’s replacement? Boots sold other such dietary substitutes – Slimfast, Crunch ‘n’ Slim – but the chocolate bars were my go-to lunchtime option. I was severely underweight and didn’t menstruate until I was in my twenties, but hey, I was eating meals, wasn’t I? Or things that stood in for them. Same difference, right?

I don’t blame Boots the chemist for my anorexia. The diet foods and pills they sold – and continue to sell – were not, they would no doubt argue, aimed at women like me. Nonetheless, we bought them, just as we bought laxatives, high-fibre drinks, detox solutions, anti-cellulite gels, bathroom scales, razor blades, self-hatred measured by the Advantage Point. Boots don’t say – in public at least – that their most loyal customer is the fucked-up, self-harming woman. Still, I can’t help thinking that without her they’d be screwed.

Whenever I enter a branch of Boots (and I’m less inclined to than ever right now), I’m always struck by how many products there are for women, how few for men. One might justifiably assume that only women’s bodies are in need of starving, scrubbing, waxing, moisturising, masking with perfume, slathering in serum, primer, foundation, powder, the works. Men’s bodies are fine as they are, thank you. It’s the women who need fixing.

Or, as the company might argue, it’s simply that women are their main target market. It’s hardly their fault if women just so happen to be more insecure about their bodies than men. How can it be irresponsible to respond to that need, if it helps these women to feel good? How can it be wrong to tell a woman that a face cream – a fucking face cream – will roll back the years? It’s what she wants, isn’t it? 

Yes, some women will use products Boots sells irresponsibly and excessively, spending a fortune on self-abasement and false hope. That’s life, though, isn’t it? Boots isn’t your mother.

Unless, of course, it’s emergency contraception you’re after. If your desire is not for a wax to strip your pubic region bare, or for diet pills to give you diarrhoea while making you smaller, but for medication in order to prevent an unwanted pregnancy, well, that’s a different matter. Here, Boots have grave concerns that making such medication too cheap may be “incentivising inappropriate use”.

I am wondering in what instances it may be “inappropriate” to want to stop the implantation of an unwanted embryo in its tracks. I’ve wondered and wondered and wondered, but I can’t think of anything. I’ve used emergency contraception five times (twice from Boots, following the third degree from an embarrassed pharmacist for no reason whatsoever.) On no occasion have I particularly felt like it.

I don’t get high on nausea and heavy, gloopy periods. I took emergency contraception because in the context of my life, it was the responsible thing to do (by contrast, the most reckless thing I’ve ever done is have a third baby at age 40, even if it saved me £28.25 in Levonelle costs nine months earlier).

Clearly Boots don’t see things the way I do. There may be women who use Adios or Strippd inappropriately, but what’s the alternative to making these things easily available? More women getting fat, or fewer spending money on trying not to get fat, and such a thing would be untenable.

As for the alternative to accessing emergency contraception ... Well, it’s only a pregnancy. No big deal. And hey, did you know Boots even sell special toiletries for new mums, just so you can pamper yourself and the baby you didn’t want in the first place? See, they really care! (But don’t go thinking you can then use your Advantage Points to buy formula milk. Those tits were made for feeding – why not spend your points on a bust firming gel for afterwards?).

I get that Boots is interested in profit and I get that pretending to really, really care about the customer is just what you do when you’re in marketing. I also get that Boots isn't the only company which does this. They all do.

But making it harder for poorer women to access emergency contraception just so you won’t offend the customers who’ll judge them? Really, Boots? Isn’t that making this whole charade a little too obvious?

Commenting on what another woman does with her body should not be off-limits (if it was, no one would have ever identified and treated the eating disorder that was killing me.) Even so, it’s instructive to look at the things we see fit to comment on and those we don’t.

Want to inject your face with poison? Augment your breasts with silicone? Have your vagina remodelled to please your husband? Go ahead. Your body, your choice.

Want to control your reproductive life? Avoid the risks and permanent aftermath of childbirth? Prevent the need for an abortion down the line?

Well, that’s another matter. We’re just not sure we can trust you. Forget about those pills. Why not have some folic acid and stretch mark cream instead?

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.