Peter York On Ads: You've come a long way, baby. And now you have to worry about dying

Well Woman Plus
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The Independent Online

It's quite a thing, being a woman. A more elemental kind of destiny than being a man, that's for sure. We know this from Edna O'Brien. By the late 1960s, as Tom Wolfe pointed out, the women's movement and its rhetoric meant that women started to regard gender as a mission that was intrinsically fascinating and tremendously important in itself. Just like men used to. We laughed ourselves silly at Iron Men - quite rightly, but "I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman" is simply authentic.

After years of being less than a dog or an armchair all this was a decided improvement. And advertisers were quick to run with the idea that a particular kind of biology was destiny. Virginia Slims and "you've come a long way baby" was a patronising way of selling cigarettes as fundamentally girlie as a multicoloured Balkan Sobranie. And all kinds of 1970s advertising flattered women with vignettes of the "silly daddy" or "human Labrador" teenage son kind. Those commercials degraded men for a purpose.

By the Nineties it'd all moved to cars. There were cars developed for girls - like the Ford Ka - and commercials targeting their new feelings, like the Volkswagen Polo and the Ford Fiesta. And later service advertising that said we'll give you special treatment because you're a better bet for loans or insurance, less likely to mess up, more likely to pay up.

There's another story now, which is mum as breadwinner, divorced, the equal or higher earning partner. So those traditional insurance ads which used to ask hyper-responsible man what would happen to the widow and her mites if, God forbid, it all went wrong, are starting to be recast for women. What if mum was ill?

The new American Life insurance commercial works this seam. There's a young mum at a school sports day - evoking Diana in that race - saying she's glad she's fit enough. But every day thousands of women are diagnosed with a female cancer. How would you cope? Well Woman Plus from American Life (would that brand have come out differently configured if it'd been made in Britain you wonder?), could pay up to £27,000 the instant you're diagnosed. And lots of other hedged-about "up tos" per day and week. "Helping your loved ones cope while you concentrate on getting better." When Evelyn Waugh wrote The Loved One in 1947 it was a funny grating bit of American hucksterism. Now it's practically standard English.

It gets wincingly worse for an old Brit sensibility though. The worst; what if the worst happens, though survival rates are high? Your family could receive life cover payment. But if you haven't claimed after 20 years, you get back every penny (after they've harvested it for interest and its worth hugely less in real terms).

It's all very precise and tremendously responsible: the target age group - 18 to 49, the range of mainstream mums in modern Britain - the first free month, the free gift and website. There's no directorial cleverness, no humour or overblown technology. The presenter reminds you of the new Davina McCall, redeemed by motherhood. The situation's entry-level, middle class, rather than the call-centre formula of the underclass loan consolidators. And though they're showing a nuclear family, you have to wonder who they're really targeting.