Kilbourne demystifies advertising for J-series crowd
By Erin Miller
Editor in chief
It does not take an expert to determine that most advertising aimed at women can be interpreted as objectifying and demeaning.
But Dr. Jean Kilbourne, the speaker at the Wednesday, Jan. 16 installment of the January Series, is an expert, and she illustrated for the full Fine Arts Center and overflow rooms just how important it is for women to be aware of the way in which their self-esteem and self-images are targeted by advertisers.
``Advertising is not solely to blame,'' Kilbourne said. ``But it is pervasive and persuasive.''
In their lifetime, average Americans will have spent three entire years watching television commercials alone. Americans see more than 3,000 advertisements each day.
Within those advertisements are messages that are sent consistently to the consumers, messages that emphasize women's sexuality and men's success as the greatest part of their worth.
While it may seem obvious that most people cannot compete with the images of sexuality and success presented, few people understand just how out of touch with reality the images presented are, particularly the images of beautiful women seen in advertisements.
A slide show of different advertisements accompanied Kilbourne's lecture. One of the first slides she used was a headshot of a supermodel, her hair perfectly combed and her makeup meticulously applied. The image of beauty presented in the ad, Kilbourne said, is impossible in real life.
``It cannot be achieved,'' Kilbourne said. ``No one looks like her. It's a look that's based on airbrushing.''
It is more important for women to realize that not even supermodels look like their easily recognizable images. Kilbourne related a well-known anecdote involving Cindy Crawford, in which Crawford joked how she wished she looked like Cindy Crawford. When a model or actress has most, but not all, physical traits for a specific part or role, pictures of her may be combined with pictures of other actresses or models to create a more perfect body.
Over the past few decades, the gap between how models look and how average women look has widened significantly, Kilbourne said. Although models used to weigh just eight percent less than the average woman, they now way 23 percent less, and only about five percent of women have the body type that is glamorized in advertisements.
Not only have standards of beauty changed to these unachievable ideals, the advertising industry has also changed the way in which people - women in particular - see food. Over the past few years, Kilbourne said, food has been ``increasingly sexualized.''
``If food is sex, then the good girl is the one who doesn't eat,'' she said. ``The ménage à troís we need to feel bad about is with Ben and Jerry. If food is the temptation, then the diet product is the salvation.''
There are several problems inherent in the pushing of such products, she added. First, many of the products are unsafe, putting users' lives in danger. Second, the products are ineffective; dieters who use diet products are likely to not only gain back any weight loss, but also additional weight as their body recovers from the damage the products inflict.
Finally, many women's magazines run advertisements for the products, conveying an unofficial message that such products are safe and effective. The same magazines also publish articles about women's health that ignore the predominance of such products.
``[The magazines] are not going to run anything that makes the ads look bad,'' Kilbourne said. ``It's censorship of the press on behalf of industries.''
Not only do magazines often ignore the health problems because of the large amount of ad revenue these products generate, but many magazines advertise their own readership to sellers of dangerous products, other than diet products like alcohol and cigarettes. Some television experts go so far as to call buying television advertising ``renting viewers' eyeballs.''
The advertisements for diet products exhibit one more significant problem, Kilbourne said. The manner in which women are portrayed is intended to silence the women, to take away their power and ability to speak up for themselves.
``The way to cope with the fact that it's a dangerous world is to eat diet products,'' she said. ``Don't be too powerful. The more you subtract, the more you add. The obsession with thinness is about cutting girls down to size. They're very clever, but the underlying message is problematic.''
While some advertisements over the past few years have also begun to objectify men in the same way in which women have traditionally been objectified, this sort of equality is not what Kilbourne has been asking for.
One example of that is a Calvin Klein ad in which a man, nearly naked, stands with his genitals covered by a piece of Calvin Klein clothing. When this ad first appeared, Kilbourne's critics used it as an example of a new era in advertising. Kilbourne countered that by pointing out a lack of demeaning ad copy emphasizing the man's objectification.
Instead of equally objectifying men and women, she said, she would like to see men and women presented as they really are, in a manner in which they are presented as subjects, not objects to be desired, owned or overpowered.
Perhaps the worst part of the objectification of men and women through advertisements is that, despite the abundance of advertising in the lives of average Americans, every person Kilbourne meets denies the influence of advertising on their own life.
``Just as it's difficult to be healthy in a toxic physical environment, it's difficult to be healthy in a toxic cultural environment,'' she said. ``[But] just about everyone in America feels personally exempt.''
The solution, she said, involves teaching children early in life how to interpret the advertising they see, but additional measure must also be taken.
``There's a lot we can do,'' Kilbourne said. ``However, we cannot take on a toxic culture environment child by child, house by house.''
Instead, the entire environment must be examined and the advertising industry itself must be held responsible for what they produce.
``Advertisers will never voluntarily change,'' she said. ``We must protest, boycott, speak out. Women need to support each other. Men need to support women, too.''
This is the third time Kilbourne has spoken at the January Series. She called it her favorite lecture series. She is the author of the book, ``Deadly Persuasion,'' discussing the problems with advertising and its impact on women and girls.
More information about Kilbourne, as well as resources on the subject of advertising, are available at www.jeankilbourne.com.