All the costumes

Subway’s naughty nurse Halloween ad is not so fresh

Bill O'ReillyOctober 2014 — A new television ad for Subway uses a naughty nurse costume, among others, to encourage U.S. customers to dine at the sandwich chain so as to be able to fit into sexy Halloween costumes. In the ad, a young female office worker urges two colleagues not to eat burgers for lunch, but instead to emulate her Subway choices, because Halloween is coming and they must “stay in shape for all the costumes!” She proceeds to demonstrate, donning a quick series of mostly naughty costumes which she helpfully labels as “attractive nurse . . . spicy Red Riding Hood . . . Viking princess warrior . . . hot devil . . . sassy teacher . . . and foxy fullback!” The nurse outfit isn’t the naughtiest ever, but it is a ridiculously short, flimsy dress. Of course, as usual, it’s a lighthearted “joke,” and there is irony in the ad’s presentation of the costumes. But that won’t stop viewers from internalizing yet another naughty nurse image, yet another tired fusion of female sexuality with the traditionally female profession of nursing. Decades of these stereotypical images, in the aggregate, contribute to an atmosphere in which decision-makers and the public don’t take nursing as seriously as they should, with the result that nurses continue to struggle for adequate resources and respect, and ambitious career seekers of both genders hesitate to choose the profession. We urge Subway to get a little fresher in its advertising.

Read more below the video . . .

Pretty much trick

In the 30-second Subway ad, airing in the weeks leading up to Halloween, three white-collar workers sit at a table eating lunch, two women and a man. One, an attractive female, questions the choice of the other two to eat burgers; we see that she is eating Subway. The other female worker responds with some relief that summer is over, presumably meaning there’s less pressure for them to stay slim. But that diner has obviously missed something important.

First female:  Halloween’s coming. You gotta stay in shape for all the costumes!

The man, seeming startled, says, “What’s that?” And when we cut back to the first female, she begins appearing in a series of mostly naughty costumes, briefly describing each as it appears.

First female:  You know, like… attractive nurse… spicy Red Riding Hood…Viking princess warrior…hot devil…sassy teacher…and foxy fullback! Touchdown.

The “attractive nurse” outfit is a very short white and red dress complete with a fake-looking old-timey cap and ridiculous long gloves with red bows–maybe that’s to keep the Ebola well off her hands, although the minimal leg coverage would be an area of some concern. The actress models the outfit with one hand on her hip. Sassy!

The ad cuts back to her seated colleagues. The man is now dressed in a Viking outfit too, and he asks calmly, “Can we go over the Viking lady again?”

The voiceover takes over, with images of Subway sandwiches:  “Whatever you’re staying fit for, start at Subway, with loads of delicious low-fat sandwiches like tender turkey piled with any of your favorite veggies. Subway. Eat fresh.”

So, although the naughty nurse image only appears for a second, it’s still going to register as another drop in a sea of similar images over the years, all reinforcing the idea that part of nursing is being a sexually available female, an idea that has been part of the global cultural landscape since the 1960s and that some men seem to have actually embraced.  Oh wait — is thisad actually making fun of the stupid costumes? Like, being all cool and ironic, not that any real thinking person would wear such things, or if they did, thatwould be totally ironic, right? We’re way too hip to take this, or anything, seriously!

Of course, we’ve never seen a naughty nurse ad that wasn’t a “joke” at some level. Naughty nurse imagery is almost never meant to suggest that real nurses actually dress that way, any more than this ad is saying some office worker was really able to change into 6 different outfits in less than 10 seconds.

But if “fantasy” ads did not affect views and actions, companies would not spend billions on them. And when you’re deploying the same old stereotypes that link nursing with female sexuality, it’s not enough that the whole ad is a light-hearted “joke.” Maybe the ad is saying the costumes are silly, but it’s still offering them up without any clear comment or apparent thought about what they might mean for the real female-dominated professions depicted–nursing and teaching–which, for some reason, continue to struggle for the respect and resources they need. It’s just “fun” to keep presenting female nurses this way, over and over and over! Well, it’s certainly easy–just another stock cultural reference that most people will recognize and understand, without necessarily thinking about why it exists or what it might mean. But it will stay with them at some level. Research shows that sexist “jokes” actually do contribute to sexist attitudes. And research also suggests that TV imagery presenting nurses as “brainless, sex-mad bimbos” discourages ambitious students from considering the profession.

We urge Subway to pull this ad, apologize and make amends for the damage it has caused.

Click here to send Subway a letter and if you do, please copy us at so we can follow your comments and advocacy. Thank you!


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