The ADgenda: cold, dead-eyed Kooples

The week's oddest advert.

We've all heard that sex sells. Well, so does shared catatonic boredom if The Kooples adverts are anything to go by. You're sure to have seen them adorning the sides of buses in cities across the country - the hollow-eyed, sullen slouchers who represent a brand with a smugger than smug outlook on life.  The Kooples rely on the assumption that you spend your days coordinating outfits with the ultimate accessory, your impeccably dressed girlfriend/boyfriend. These Kooples also inhabit a strange world where same sex and mixed race relationships are non-existent and women are in thrall to their talented men – Cantona balancing a ball and blondie slouching on his BMX like an oversized child while their girlfriends stand idly by. 

The tagline declares something along the lines of "Stefano and Arietty have been together for five years" – each of those years cooler, hipper and more fashion savvy than the last. No morning breath, snoring, shout-whisper arguments in public places for them. No, the Kooples are here to show us that our aspirations are futile, however hard you strive you will never be as achingly beautiful a unit as these ethereal beings. 

Evidenced by the cool £87m they notched up last year, it seems a few of us are buying into this message. Walk past any of their stores and you're sure to see either an awkward looking couple dubiously eyeing the his'n'hers leather get-up, or a nervously determined singleton, head held high, weathering the "This is not for you" disdain that the brand so effortlessly oozes. Never has an advertising campaign delivered such a hefty kick in the teeth to all singletons, or to the ultimate sinners – a sartorially clashing twosome. Nothing says "relationship on the rocks" like a bomber jacket boy strolling next to a flowery dress girl. God forbid. 

It's hard to imagine daily reality for these impeccably turned-out twosomes. Dinner at a restaurant would resound with the clinking of cutlery – the universal sign for awkward social occasions.  Polite enquiries would be met with bizarre self-satisfaction: "How did you two meet?", "Well, I noticed that the angle of his cheekbones perfectly complemented the shade of my suede trousers and I knew he was 'the one'".  

The Kooples business model revolves around disdain – tapping into that primal need for approval hardwired into our systems since school days spent hankering to be one of the cool kids, left wanting it all the more when our efforts were rewarded with a withering glance. The only difference is now the cool kids seem faintly ridiculous, insistent on our attention as they stare down at us from bus sidings, like precocious children their eyes shout "Look at us! We're the ideal!" To which the average passer-by responds with a bemused acknowledgement. Quick, applaud the beautiful people before they start to stamp their feet. 

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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