"You're a Halston woman from the very beginning," the
advertisement proclaims. The model stares provocatively at the viewer,
her long blonde hair waving around her face, her bare chest partially
covered by two curved bottles that give the illusion of breasts
and a cleavage.
The average American is accustomed to blue-eyed blondes seductively
touting a variety of products. In this case, however, the blonde
is about five years old.
Advertising is an over 100 billion dollar a year industry and affects
all of us throughout our lives. We are each exposed to over 2000
ads a day, constituting perhaps the most powerful educational force
in society. The average American will spend one and one-half years
of his or her life watching television commercials. The ads sell
a great deal more than products. They sell values, images, and concepts
of success and worth, love and sexuality, popularity and normalcy.
They tell us who we are and who we should be. Sometimes they sell
Advertising is the foundation and economic lifeblood of the mass
media. The primary purpose of the mass media is to deliver an audience
to advertisers, just as the primary purpose of television programs
is to deliver an audience for commercials.
Adolescents are particularly vulnerable because they are new and
inexperienced consumers and are the prime targets of many advertisements.
They are in the process of learning their values and roles and developing
their self-concepts. Most teenagers are sensitive to peer pressure
and find it difficult to resist or even question the dominant cultural
messages perpetuated and reinforced by the media. Mass communication
has made possible a kind of national peer pressure that erodes private
and individual values and standards.
But what do people, especially teenagers, learn from the advertising
messages? On the most obvious level they learn the stereotypes.
Advertising creates a mythical, mostly white world in which people
are rarely ugly, overweight, poor, struggling or disabled, either
physically or mentally (unless you count the housewives who talk
to little men in toilet bowls). In this world, people talk only
Housewives or Sex Objects
The aspect of advertising most in need of analysis and change is
the portrayal of women. Scientific studies and the most casual viewing
yield the same conclusion: women are shown almost exclusively as
housewives or sex objects.
The housewife, pathologically obsessed by cleanliness, debates the
virtues of cleaning products with herself and worries about "ring
around the collar" (but no one ever asks why he doesn't wash
his neck). She feels guilt for not being more beautiful, for not
being a better wife and mother.
The sex object is a mannequin, a shell. Conventional beauty is her
only attribute. She has no lines or wrinkles (which would indicate
she had the bad taste and poor judgment to grow older), no scars
or blemishes--indeed, she has no pores. She is thin, generally tall
and long-legged, and, above all, she is young. All "beautiful"
women in advertisements (including minority women), regardless of
product or audience, conform to this norm. Women are constantly
exhorted to emulate this ideal, to feel ashamed and guilty if they
fail, and to feel that their desirability and lovability are contingent
upon physical perfection.
The image is artifical and can only be achieved artificially (even
the "natural look" requires much preparation and expense).
Beauty is something that comes from without; more than one million
dollars is spent every hour on cosmetics. Desperate to conform to
an ideal and impossible standard, many women go to great lengths
to manipulate and change their faces and bodies. A woman is conditioned
to view her face as a mask and her body as an object, as things
separate from and more important than her real self, constantly
in need of alteration, improvement, and disguise. She is made to
feel dissatisfied with and ashamed of herself, whether she tries
to achieve "the look" or not. Objectified constantly by
others, she learns to objectify herself.
When Glamour magazine surveyed its readers in 1984, 75 percent felt
too heavy and only 15 percent felt just right. Nearly half of those
who were actually underweight reported feeling too fat and wanting
to diet. Among a sample of college women, 40 percent felt overweight
when only 12 percent actually were too heavy. Nine out of ten participants
in diet programs are female, many of whom are already close to their
proper weight," according to Rita Freedman in her book Beauty
There is evidence that this preoccupation with weight is beginning
at ever-earlier ages for women. According to a recent article in
New Age Journal, "even grade-school girls are succumbing to
stick-like standards of beauty enforced by a relentless parade of
wasp-waisted fashion models, movie stars and pop idols." A
study by a University of California professor showed that nearly
80 percent of fourth-grade girls in the Bay Area are watching their
A recent Wall Street Journal survey of students in four Chicago-area
schools found that more than half the fourth-grade girls were dieting
and three-quarters felt they were overweight. One student said,
"We don't expect boys to be that handsome. We take them as
they are." Another added, "But boys expect girls to be
perfect and beautiful. And skinny."
Dr. Steven Levenkron, author of The Best Little Girl in the World,
the story of an anorexic, says his blood pressure soars every time
he opens a magazine and finds an ad for women's fashions. "If
I had my way," he said, "every one of them would have
to carry a line saying, 'Caution: This model may be hazardous to
your health.'" It is estimated that one in five college age
women has an eating disorder.
Women are also dismembered in commercials, their bodies separated
into parts in need of change or improvement. If a woman has "acceptable"
breasts, then she must also be sure that her legs are worth watching,
her hips slim, her feet sexy, and that her buttocks look nude under
her clothes ("like I'm not wearin' nothin'").
The mannequin has no depth, no totality; she is an aggregate of
parts that have been made acceptable.
This image is difficult and costly to achieve and impossible to
maintain, no one is flawless and everyone ages. Growing older is
the great taboo. Women are encouraged to remain little girls ("because
innocence is sexier than you think"), to be passive and dependent,
never to mature. The contradictory message--"sensual, but not
too far from innocence"--places women in a double bind; somehow
we are supposed to be both sexy and virginal; experienced and naive,
seductive and chaste. The disparagement of maturity is, of course,
insulting and frustrating to adult women, and the implication that
little girls are seductive is dangerous to real children.
Influencing Sexual Attitudes
Young people also learn a great deal about sexual attitudes from
the media and from advertising in particular. Advertising's approach
to sex is pornographic; it reduces people to objects and deemphasizes
human contact and individuality. This reduction of sexuality to
a dirty joke and of people to objects is the real obscenity of the
culture. Although the sexual sell, overt and subliminal, is at a
fevered pitch in most commercials, there is at the same time a notable
absence of sex as an important and profound human activity.
There have been some changes in the images of women. Indeed, a "new
women" has emerged in commercials in recent years. She is generally
presented as superwoman, who manages to do all the work at home
and on the job (with the help of a product, of course, not of her
husband or children or friends), or as the liberated woman, who
owes her independence and self-esteem to the products she uses.
These new images do not represent any real progress but rather create
a myth of progress, an illusion that reduces complex sociopolitical
problems to mundane personal ones.
Advertising images do not cause these problems, but they contribute
to them by creating a climate in which the marketing of women's
bodies--the sexual sell and dismemberment, distorted body image
ideals and the use of children as sex objects--is seen as acceptable.
There is the real tragedy, that many women internalize these stereotypes
and learn their "limitations," thus establishing a self-fulfilling
prophecy. If one accepts these mythical and degrading images, to
some extent one actualizes them. By remaining unaware of the profound
seriousness of the ubiquitous influence, the redundant message and
the subliminal impact of advertisements, we ignore one of the most
powerful "educational" forces in the culture -- one that
greatly affects our self-images, our ability to relate to each other,
and effectively destroys any awareness and action that might help
to change that climate.
Jean Kilbourne, creator of award-winning films Still Killing Us Softly and Calling The Shots, lectures internationally on alcohol and cigarette advertising, the image of women in advertising, and other topics.
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