College of Liberal Arts & Sciences

Kilbourne speaks Oct. 20 on effects of ads

By Lori Runkle
Greenlee Web Team

Jean Kilbourne

Jean Kilbourne signs a copy of her book "Can't Buy My Love" after her lecture Oct. 20. Photo by Lori Runkle, Greenlee Web Team

Jean Kilbourne reminds Americans that we are exposed to more than 3,000 advertisements each day. Many people believe advertising does not affect their lives. Kilbourne begs to differ.

Kilbourne, known for her work on alcohol and tobacco advertising and the depiction of women in ads, discussed the public impact of marketing in her Oct. 20 lecture in the Sun Room of the Memorial Union.

Women and advertising

The author of “Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel” said that in most advertisements, men and women inhabit different worlds in terms of their bodies.

“Women are constantly scrutinized, criticized and judged on their bodies and how they look,” she said in her video “Killing Us Softly 3: Advertising’s Image of Women.” Kilbourne perceives advertising as defining women's sexuality in an extremely rigid and clichéd way.

When she was 16, Kilbourne started modeling professionally, but soon realized that she was not valued for her intellect or ideas but rather for her face and figure.

Kilbourne’s experiences in modeling left her committed to exposing the indignities she faced. Kilbourne asked herself how advertising created a climate of powerlessness and inequality for women, and then she went to work finding the answers.

In her lecture, Kilbourne said, “What matters for men is how much money you make … For women, the emphasis is always on our bodies.”

Perhaps that’s why the world knows Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wears a dress size 6, “but we don’t know the suit size Dick Cheney wears.” And this attitude is repeated and reinforced in advertising both on television and in print.

The layout, design and copy that Kilbourne sees in advertisements send girls and women the message they need elective surgery like breast augmentation because natural female breasts are too pointy, too far apart, too pendulous, or two mosquito bites, she joked.

Advertising is telling American society that girls should disappear and become extremely thin, she said.

Advertising and democracy

Kilbourne, who has a doctorate in education from Boston University, began to analyze the content of advertisements and pose the question, “What effects were words and images in advertising having on women, teenagers and the American public?”

Many Americans believe that advertising does not affect their lives; however, Kilbourne argues that advertising’s influence is escalating, cumulatively and unconsciously.

One example of its increasing power is the degree to which it has overtaken the political process.

In an interview on the TomPaine.common sense Web site, she said “… the elections now are all about advertising and who has the best ads, the best spin and all of that, and just not at all about issues … to me this presents a real danger to democracy because you simply can’t have democracy if you don’t have informed citizens …”

Advertising and public health

The threat to democracy is not the only side effect of the advertising industry’s influence, according to Kilbourne. Advertising is also a public health issue.

“If everyone drank responsibly, alcohol sales would go down by 80 percent,” she said. Kilbourne defined “responsibly” as one drink a day for a woman and two drinks a day for a man.

The reality is “the alcohol industry strives to attract young people, attract alcoholics and create a climate of denial. There is not a problem.”

Kilbourne views drinking as “the No. 1 problem on college campuses across the United States.” In fact, “The most widely used illegal drug in America is beer, specifically Budweiser.” In addition, “12 to 20 percent of alcohol is bought by underage drinkers,” she said.

Kilbourne encourages the advertising industry to take responsibility for the problems she sees it causing people.

Kilbourne compares the health issues of bulimia and anorexia to alcoholism. Eating disorders are fueled in a large part by the image of women in advertising, she said.

Fantasy advertising

In the Tom Paine interview, Kilbourne discusses the impact of fantasy ads on the American public.

Cultural fantasies are created in advertising causing Americans to want more.

According to Kilbourne, the castle-in-the-sky vision of sleek sports cars and sexy models, which is so prominent in advertisements, encourages consumers “to identify, to really long for luxury, to long for all kinds of very expensive goods, and to believe somehow that we are going to be able to get there and to achieve them.”

Unfortunately, this longing can lead people down the road to excessive credit card debt and living beyond their means.

Media literacy

In a December/January 2000-2001 online interview with Ms. magazine, Kilbourne said, “The most important thing we can do is teach media literacy in our schools. Most other nations do. A truly critical audience would be less easily manipulated.”

Changing the norms of American culture, using advertising that features real women and men who have not been airbrushed, and deglamourizing products such as cigarettes are also part of the solution.

We must redefine freedom as the right to be safe, healthy and free from manipulation and censorship Kilbourne said in the conclusion to her lecture.

“We must fight for (freedom) and we must cherish it.”


-- Wed, 26 Oct 2005 --