Media Beat

Ad Industry: Giving Women Special Treatment

By Norman Solomon

Last fall, when Jean Kilbourne's new book "Deadly Persuasion" was arriving on shelves, Publishers Weekly praised it as "a wake-up call about the damaging effects of advertising in our media-saturated culture." But six months later, the mass media's fingers remain firmly on the snooze button.

It's hardly surprising that few national media outlets have reviewed the book or interviewed the author. Kilbourne's work is a publicist's nightmare. Imagine trying to get an articulate critic of ads onto TV networks that rely on commercials for their big profits.

"If you're like most people, you think that advertising has no influence on you," Kilbourne writes. "This is what advertisers want you to believe. But, if that were true, why would companies spend over $200 billion a year on advertising?"

We end up buying into much more than we purchase, Kilbourne contends, as advertising "sells values, images, and concepts of love and sexuality, romance, success, and, perhaps most important, normalcy.... Far from being a passive mirror of society, advertising is an effective and pervasive medium of influence and persuasion, and its influence is cumulative, often subtle, and primarily unconscious."

In the advertised world, what we can buy is apt to seem more reliable than people. "Again and again, advertising tells us that relationships with human beings are fragile and disappointing but that we can count on our products," Kilbourne comments. She underscores what should be obvious -- yet what is constantly obscured by an ad-driven media culture: "Products are only things. No matter how much we love them, they will never love us back."

While the pages of "Deadly Persuasion" deftly explain how advertising inflicts untold damage on people in all demographic categories, the focus is mostly on the virulent treatment of females. The book's subtitle: "Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising."

The ad industry, Kilbourne observes, "is one of the most potent messengers in a culture that can be toxic for girls' self-esteem. Indeed, if we looked only at advertising images, this would be a bleak world for females." Even before the start of adolescence, the assault is severe. "The culture, both reflected and reinforced by advertising, urges girls to adopt a false self, to bury alive their real selves..."

Public awareness has grown about "the damage done to girls by the tyranny of the ideal image, weightism, and the obsession with thinness," Kilbourne notes. "But girls get other messages too that 'cut them down to size' more subtly. In ad after ad, girls are urged to be 'barely there' -- beautiful but silent. Of course, girls are not just influenced by images of other girls. They are even more powerfully attuned to images of women, because they learn from these images what is expected of them, what they are to become."

Manipulation of intimate desires is most deadly on behalf of tobacco companies. Kilbourne points out: "Of all the lies that advertising tells us, the ones told in cigarette ads are the most lethal." In 1979, the targeting of men and women with tobacco ads reached parity. Today, "the only equality with men the advent of women's smoking has given us is that we now are getting lung cancer at the same rate."

Women are commonly deterred from expressing rage. In its place, advertisers offer a cornucopia of products. "Since anger is one of the great taboos for women," says Kilbourne, "we learn to repress anger, and usually to turn it against the self." Although many ads explicitly link buying with resilience and self-assertion, advertising actually undercuts the potential to create positive change. "Girls and women are encouraged to use cigarettes and alcohol to cope with anger and depression and to repress their authentic rebelliousness, all the while deluding themselves that they are being genuinely defiant."

Our society's nonstop deluge of ads is "trivializing human relationships and encouraging us to feel that we are in relationships with our products," Kilbourne writes. But effective resistance is possible: "We can redefine the crucial concepts -- love, rebellion, sexuality, friendship, freedom -- that advertising has corrupted, and take them back for our own health, power, and fulfillment."

If you read Jean Kilbourne's book (the entire first chapter is posted at www.deadlypersuasion.com), the chances are good that you'll deeply appreciate her work to challenge the ad madness that afflicts us all.


Norman Solomon's new book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."

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