And here’s another repost, this time of a review I wrote for Epinions.com on August 10, 2004. I will be posting it as/is, so please keep that in mind when I refer to time. I originally titled this review, “Warning: advertising can be hazardous to your health, and your wallet.
When I was in the Peace Corps, serving in the Republic of Armenia, a fellow volunteer introduced me to Jean Kilbourne by showing her 1979 movie, Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women. Kilbourne had filmed one of her lectures about how ads seductively affect the public in pursuit of the almighty dollar. Later, when I went to graduate school at the University of South Carolina, I had the opportunity to hear Jean Kilbourne speak in person. I went to her lecture and watched and listened as she showed slides of advertisements, pointing out the fascinating and horrifying subliminal messages that are presented in cigarette and booze ads. I found her to be a dynamic and intelligent speaker. I was impressed. While I was at the lecture, I had the chance to buy her 1999 book, Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising, but unfortunately I was economically challenged and the book was hardcover. Then the following year, a social work professor showed another one of her films. That settled it; I had to read her book. I purchased it and couldn’t put it down, even though some of the material presented within the book was stuff that I’d either seen in her movies or heard at her lecture. Kilbourne’s message is very important; luckily, it’s also fascinating.
According to her book, Jean Kilbourne holds a doctoral degree and has produced several award winning documentaries, and she’s been a visiting scholar at Wellesley College. She’s also served on the National Advisory Council on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and she’s been an advisor to two surgeons general. Her academic pedigree is impeccable; but she’s not just brilliant and remarkably astute, she’s also very funny. The passion she brings to her work has served to alert scores of people to the dangers of advertising and the media.
Jean Kilbourne starts off her book with the following anecdote:
In 1968 I saw an ad that changed my life. One of the many mindless jobs I had that year was placing ads in The Lancet, a medical journal. This particular one was for a birth control pill called Ovulen 21. It featured a smiling woman’s head and the caption “Ovulen 21 works the way a woman thinks– by weekdays… not ‘cycle days’.” Inside the head were seven boxes, each one day of the week. And inside each box was a picture of that day’s activity: Sunday had a roast, Monday a laundry basket, Tuesday an iron, and so forth. I realized that the ad was basically saying that women were too stupid to remember their cycles but could remember days of the week. And the days of their weeks were an endless rotation of domestic chores. (pp. 17-18)
Kilbourne put the ad up on her refrigerator and soon found herself noticing other ads that insulted and demeaned women. She kept putting the ads on her refrigerator and realized that while some of the messages in the ads were degrading to women, others were violent. She started to recognize patterns in the messages and the images within the advertisements and saw that in many of the ads, only parts of women were shown– in other words, just breasts, noses, or legs, were pictured instead of the whole woman. She noticed that “women were often infantilized and that little girls were sexualized” (18). This was how Jean Kilbourne got started as she began her pursuit of her life’s vocation, by looking at magazine ads in the late 1960s.
Kilbourne realized that everything she had done, from work to finding mates, was influenced by her appearance, although her book makes it plain that she’s very intelligent, too. Although Kilbourne had won a hometown beauty contest as a teenager, and learned how to drink and smoke from a friend, she also went to Wellesley College on a full scholarship after earning a perfect score on the verbal SAT. At Wellesley, Kilbourne earned an award that allowed her to spend a year living in London, working for the British Broadcasting Corporation. While in England, she worked as a secretary, smoked, drank, and modeled; she even dated Ringo Starr and a knight, and partied at Roman Polanski’s apartment. When she came back from Europe, Kilbourne found herself unable to find meaningful employment. It was during this period that Kilbourne really seemed to find herself in trouble with alcohol, although a doctor had told her “Don’t worry, honey, you’re not the type to be an alcoholic.” (22). She was told that she should be a model and she did work as one, until a designer told her that in order to be really successful, she would have to have sex with him. Al Capp also hired her to be a ghostwriter, but he too wanted sex in exchange for a job. With everything that happened to Kilbourne when she was coming of age, I find it no wonder that she became so focused on the women’s movement.
Jean Kilbourne makes the statement “If you’re like most people, you think that advertising has no influence on you” (33). How many of us have watched a commercial on television or looked at a print ad and felt we that we had thought nothing of it? Kilbourne points out that advertisers want the public to believe that they aren’t being affected, but they must be. Otherwise, she asks, why would advertisers spend in excess of $200 billion annually on advertising? Why would they spend half a million dollars to produce and air a commercial, or spend a couple of million dollars to air their ads during the Super Bowl or other high profile television shows? Kilbourne notes that during the 1999 Super Bowl, Victoria’s Secret aired commercials featuring scantily clad models and one million people logged onto their website, which was promoted on the television ad (33).
Kilbourne outlines why good television shows, the kinds that attract viewers of all ages, get canceled. It’s because advertisers want to attract people in the 18-49 age range; those are the people who have the most money to spend on their products. And television producers need to be able to pay their bills by commanding high advertising rates for shows that will interest people in the 18-49 age range. In fact, Kilbourne points out that most television networks have stopped aiming for the middle class and are instead trying to hook people between the ages of 18-34. It’s at that age range the advertisers theorize that they are most likely to influence people to establish brand loyalty.
Throughout Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising, Jean Kilbourne has included pictures of print ads. Some of them are from advertising journals and those are the ones that are truly sinister. One picture, an ad for an entertainment group, depicts a young bald man facing away from the camera wearing earphones. The caption, which is spread over the image of the man’s head, reads “When you’ve got them by the ears, their hearts and minds will follow.” (36) Another one shows George W. Bush (after his re-election as the governor of Texas) and the caption “If you have high ambitions, hire us. He did.” (37) The caption on the ad continues, “If we can create advertising that persuades Hispanic Democrats to vote Republican, we can get them to buy your product” (38). Pretty heavy words, especially given where Bush went after his time as governor.
So why should women and girls be worried? Kilbourne points out that “commercialism has no borders” (59). Advertising is EVERYWHERE: on billboards and trucks, on television and radio, on the internet, and in magazines and newspapers. A person would have to be blind and deaf not to be somehow affected by advertising. And the messages they promote are not always positive. In Chapter 5, Kilbourne shows ads that are associated with food. She points out that
“while men are encouraged to fall in love with their cars, women are more often invited to have a romance, indeed an erotic experience, with something even closer to home… the food we eat… and the consequences become even more severe as we enter into the territory of compulsivity and addiction” (108).
Chapter 5 includes pictures of women who look as if they are on the verge of ecstasy as they are teased with food. Kilbourne has included the insidious captions of ads that imply that food equals love and women need to be comforted by food. Kilbourne explores the psychology behind tag lines like “I thank me very much for Andy’s Candies” (110) and “From you to you” (110). The commercials show women either consoling or rewarding themselves with food. But everybody knows that women are supposed to be thin. What does advertising tell us about women who don’t meet society’s expectations by being thin enough? We aren’t told that we should be happy. We’re told that we should eat the latest fat free or low carb food. We get the message that being heavier than the woman in the magazine is unacceptable and wrong and we should do something about it by joining a gym or going on a diet. Advertising is a medium that thrives on people who are either dissatisfied or unsatisfied with some aspect of themselves or their lives. But more than that, it actually encourages people to be unhappy so that they’ll buy the latest product.
But why does this theme of dissatisfaction especially apply to women and girls? Kilbourne further addresses this concept in Chapter 6. She explores how adolescents are particularly vulnerable to advertising and how advertisers are on the prowl to get them buying their products. How many 22 year olds do you know suddenly decide one day to pick up smoking? I would venture to guess that you don’t know many… but plenty of teens pick up the habit so that they can appear older or cooler than their friends. The same goes for alcohol and sex. But aside from the messages delivered from advertising, teenagers, especially girls, also must cope with other issues that may weaken their resolve when it comes to advertising. What happens to a lot of girls when they become adolescents? Their self esteem plummets and they are liable to be less secure about who they are. They might engage in behaviors that will threaten their health, like binge drinking, eating disorders, smoking, or having unprotected intercourse that results in a sexually transmitted infection or an unintended pregnancy. This chapter includes some startling photos of ads that may not have caused the average person to to think twice… until they encounter the points that Kilbourne brings up. For example, there’s one picture of a young woman with a turtleneck pulled up over her mouth (139). On first glance, the average person might think that the girl was just keeping warm on a cold day (she’s also wearing a winter cap). On second glance, the person may understand the underlying message– that women should be seen and not heard. It’s not just pictures that convey this message. Kilbourne also writes about a perfume ad with the slogan “Make a statement without saying a word” (138). Hmmmm…
Chapters 7 and 8 are about alcohol and cigarettes. Kilbourne’s message is that no matter what the tobacco industry wants the public to believe, it’s in the business of getting young people to smoke. After all, people often die from health problems related to smoking, or if they’re lucky, they quit before they die. Somehow, those people who die or quit must be replaced. As I pointed out before, it’s a lot easier to get a teenager to start smoking than it is to get an adult into the habit. This chapter is full of good information about how teens get and stay addicted. Joe Camel is featured prominently in this section. I remember in Kilbourne’s lecture, she pointed out the many penis references on Joe Camel. I had never noticed them until she showed them to us, and now they’re plain as day.
The rest of Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising addresses how advertising itself can inspire violence, addiction, and disconnection. The chapter on violence is particularly interesting and scary. Some of the pictures included are those of familiar ads that actually call women b-itches, and promote violence and sexism. It’s a real eye-opener that might make you angry, especially if you’re a woman.
So do I have any complaints about this book? Yes, I have a couple of minor ones. One is that if you have ever seen Jean Kilbourne speak or watched one of her films, you will already be familiar with some of the ads that are included in Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising. On the other hand, this is not necessarily a weakness, since having the ads in a book and reading her words will reinforce Kilbourne’s message and you can also revisit that information over and over again and perhaps enjoy a better understanding of it. The other is that sometimes I get the feeling that she overstates her case a little bit and makes ALL advertisers out to be villains. Yes, some of their messages are dangerous and demeaning, but I don’t believe that all advertising and the people that create it are inherently evil. Kilbourne highlights how advertising can be dangerous, but at times I feel that she also goes a little bit too far and lumps all advertisers together as bad. Sometimes ads can be helpful and even positive. And I think it’s important for me to point out that I don’t believe that Americans should be subjected to thought policing. Awareness about the hidden dangers of advertising is a good thing, but I also believe that people should be allowed to make up their own minds about what advertisers are saying to them. I fear that too much control will lead us to a slippery slope that could erode our freedoms as Americans.
Nevertheless, if you’re interested in women’s rights, the media, and psychology, I think it’s a sure bet that you will enjoy reading Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising. And I believe that Jean Kilbourne has truly created a masterpiece with this book. She has no doubt helped millions by opening their eyes to the potentially destructive influences of advertising and the media.
I want to end this review by sharing an experience that I had the other night while watching television. An ad came on for M&M Cookie Bars and a little boy was shown pocketing FOUR of the bars, then tearing up the box they came in. He ordered his labrador retriever to lie down and stay, covered the dog with the torn up box, then called out, “Mom, the dog ate all the M&M Cookie Bars again!” while the dog looked up innocently.
This ad bothered me because first, it sends the message that it’s not only okay, but also cute and funny to lie and steal. Apparently, this wasn’t the kid’s first time lying and stealing, either, since he said that the dog had eaten the bars AGAIN. Second, our nation is coping with a growing population of children who are obese and developing Type 2 (formerly known as Adult Onset) Diabetes, a disease that used to typically affect adults over the age of 40 and was almost unheard of in children. And third, this ad depicts a child pretending that his dog has eaten chocolate and it’s a cute thing. Chocolate is very toxic to dogs; it contains a chemical that can kill them if they ingest too much of it. Unfortunately, different dogs handle chocolate in different ways and some chocolates are more dangerous than others. But kids who watch this ad are probably not going to know this. The ad does have a warning about giving chocolate to dogs, but it’s tiny and doesn’t stay on the screen long enough for people to read it– plus some kids who see the ad will be too young to read.
There’s no doubt that Jean Kilbourne’s book, Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising, has inspired me to look at advertising more closely and be a smarter consumer. I believe it can have the same positive effect on other people and I encourage others to read it and learn as much as I did. And if you have the chance to see Jean Kilbourne speak, I also encourage you to take the opportunity. Your eyes will open.
The paperback edition of this book is entitled Can’t Buy Me Love.
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