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Immune to marketing? Jean Kilbourne doesn't buy it

Published May 4, 2005 at 4:00 a.m.

In 1968, Jean Kilbourne saw an ad that changed her life. The Wellesley College grad, who had spent a year working for the BBC in London, had found a job placing ads in the medical journal The Lancet. It wasn't her first choice for a career -- she had worked as a writer and a model and been sexually harassed as both.

At The Lancet, an ad for a birth-control pill caught her eye. It featured a woman's smiling face, and the caption, "Ovulen 21 works the way a woman thinks -- by weekdays... not 'cycle days.'" Above the woman's head were boxes for the days of the week. Sunday contained a roast, Monday a laundry basket, Tuesday an iron.

The ad irked Kilbourne. She explains why in her 1999 book, Can't Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel: "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."

Kilbourne pinned the ad to her fridge, and started noticing others. And she began exploring the connection between the portrayal of women in advertising and the harassment she had experienced in her own life.

She gave her first university talk on the subject in 1976. In the nearly 30 years since, she's connected those dots in lectures at more than a third of all U.S. colleges and universities. Kilbourne has produced three documentary films and a book deconstructing advertising, and has broadened her critique to include the ways advertisers promote addictive and destructive behaviors. Consequently, she's been featured in nearly every major media outlet in the country, including Time, the Wall Street Journal, "Prime Time Live" and "Oprah."

Kilbourne's efforts were recognized by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists in 1995. Presenting her with the Women's Image Now Award, committee chair Elaine LeGaro said, "No one in the world has done more to improve the image of women in the media than Jean Kilbourne." Indeed, her following extends to younger women as well; "Kilbourne," an all-female punk/metal trio from Alberta, Canada, recently named themselves after her.

Kilbourne keynotes at the Action Coalition for Media Education's second annual summit, on May 9 at Champlain College. ACME's Vermont chapter is sponsoring the event, entitled "Remote Control or Self Control: Staying Healthy in a Media Culture." Students, educators, activists and health-care providers are invited to attend. Kilbourne, who lives in Massachusetts, spoke with Seven Days via cellphone during a recent trip to Seattle.

SEVEN DAYS: Which of your catalogue of lectures will you be presenting at the ACME conference?

JEAN KILBOURNE: I'm going to be doing "Deadly Persuasion," which is a little bit of everything. There's a section on alcohol, a section on tobacco, a section on the image of women and the obsession with thinness. It's kind of a crash course in media literacy as prevention of substance abuse.

SD: You've been talking about this stuff since the 1970s, and it just seems like the portrayal of women in our culture has only gotten cruder.

JK: It's true. I often joke that I've been doing this work for 30 years and everything's gotten worse.

SD: Has anything changed?

JK: Well, here's what's changed -- the image of women is worse than ever before. The encroachment of advertising on our lives is worse than ever before. The marketing mentality of the culture is worse than ever before.

But when I started 30 years ago, I was really alone, essentially, and what I was saying was considered quite radical. And now there are many, many organizations and resources and people involved in this work. What I'm saying is more mainstream. There's more of a real groundswell of opposition to the marketing mentality. We have a long way to go, but that's a big change.

And the most heartening thing that's happened has been what's happened with the tobacco industry. Which is not to say that the tobacco industry isn't still extremely powerful -- it is -- but it's been unmasked to a great extent in this country.

About 10 or 15 years ago, there was a huge shift in public health, in shifting from a focus on the individual to a focus on the environment. So instead of focusing on the individual smoker, we shifted the focus to the tobacco industry, to the advertising, to the availability of cigarettes, to the environment in which somebody makes a decision whether or not to smoke. And that's been a shift across the board in public health, not just with tobacco. And it's made all the difference in the world.

Because the industries want to keep it focused on the individual. As long as we do that, they don't have to change. But once we focus on the environment, then we start talking about restrictions on advertising... Of course, they don't want this, but that is the only thing that really makes a difference.

SD: You've written that the average American sees 3000 advertisements a day. Which ads stand out in your mind as the most harmful?

JK: Oh, it's hard to say. There are so many. But I guess if I had to choose one thing, it would be the increased sexualization of little girls. I can't think of any one campaign, but there's just been so much of that across the board, where little girls -- very little girls -- are just being encouraged to dress sexy, act sexy, wear makeup, act like little teenagers...

Girls have gotten this message for a long time, but it used to start when they were about 15, and now it starts when they're about 6. And teenage girls, of course, are extremely hypersexualized, too. I think that has just terrible effects on the children themselves, and also on the culture...

But it isn't so much individual ads as it is the cumulative impact of advertising. For example, one ad features a very thin model, so what? But the fact that they all do has a real impact on what people see as the ideal female body. The same thing with a perfect face. One perfect face in a cosmetic ad, big deal. But when there are thousands of them, and that's all we ever see, that has a huge impact. In many ways, I shy away from saying it's a particular advertiser or a particular agency. It's rather the cumulative impact of all these images.

Because, let's say Calvin Klein does something outrageous, which he does every couple of years. There's a whole lot of coverage, which actually improves his sales, and people get upset about it. In the long run, I don't think that does as much harm as the perfect face seen over and over and over again.

SD: Typically it's liberal groups who endorse media literacy, and conservatives who complain about indecency. Have you had any success working with conservatives?

JK: In some ways. They are strange bedfellows. They're concerned about blatant sexual images in the media, they're concerned about violence in the media, and so am I. But we would differ, a lot, about what's pornographic.

And we probably would also differ about the remedy. I'm not in favor of any kind of censorship. I think they are. I'm in favor of very honest, accurate sex education. They're not. There are all sorts of ways in which we are worlds apart. But we do share a concern about these images, and a concern about how they're affecting our children. I think some bridges can be built there.

SD: What's your solution to fighting this problem?

JK: One of the main things I do is encourage people to fight to get media literacy into our schools. The United States is one of the only developed nations in the world that doesn't teach media literacy in the schools. I think if we did, that would go a long way toward solving this problem. I'm really after an educational remedy rather than a legislative one.

Although I also urge people to support bills that would either restrict or limit, or even eliminate advertising aimed at children. The EU is considering a bill that would ban all advertising aimed at children, and I would certainly love to see that.

I would support a ban on tobacco advertising. And I would encourage people to support some of the groups listed on my website, like ACME.

SD: You've written that everyone is influenced by advertising. Are you?

JK: Oh, sure. There's no way not to be. Of course, when I talk about its influence, it's not so much whether it influences us to buy products or not. That's hard to measure, and that's not my biggest concern. My biggest concern is, what does advertising sell other than products? What kinds of attitudes, what kinds of images does it sell?

So in that respect, how can one not be influenced? I get depressed when I read women's magazines. How can I not? Everybody does. And I think that it's just impossible not to look in the mirror and have a critical voice that's judging you according to these images that have surrounded us all our lives.

You can fight it and resist it and try to silence that critical voice, but I think it's pretty impossible to mute it entirely.

SD: That's so discouraging!

JK: It is, I know. But I think I'm better off than I would have been if I hadn't spent all this time doing all this work. I just don't think it's possible to be immune to these messages. But that doesn't mean that we can't resist them.

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About The Author

Cathy Resmer

Cathy Resmer

Deputy publisher Cathy Resmer is an organizer of the Vermont Tech Jam. She also oversees Seven Days' parenting publication, Kids VT, and created the Good Citizen Challenge, a youth civics initiative. Resmer began her career at Seven Days as a freelance writer in 2001. Hired as a staff writer in 2005, she became the publication's first online editor in 2007.


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