FigTree Header 10.14



Review all 2022 Benefit videos

To advertise in print or online
Click here
Share this article
Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

Media literacy specialist depicts how ads manipulate

Decades ago, Wellesley College graduate Jean Kilbourne saw a disturbing ad that changed her life.

The ad said a product “works the way women think,” implying women were too stupid to remember.  It showed a woman doing laundry on Monday, ironing on Tuesday and so forth.

Jean Kilbourne speaks on media literacy

Jean Kilbourne

"It was insulting,” she said, speaking at a recent conference on “Surviving and Thriving,” sponsored by the Women’s Leadership Conference and the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media at Spokane Community College.

Jean began putting ads on her refrigerator, each painting an image of women.  In the 1970s, she wrote Killing Us Softly and overcame her terror about public speaking.  She now talks on media literacy around the world.

She is recognized as a pioneer in her work to challenge alcohol and tobacco ads and images of women in media.

While there have been some improvements, some aspects of the problem are worse.  

“It’s hard to raise healthy children in a toxic cultural environment,” she said, “so we need public education to help us realize we are citizens, not just consumers.

“Ads are a powerful educational force in society through which industries sell attitudes, not just products,” she said.

While 50 corporations controlled most information in the United States 20 years ago, now just a handful control 90 percent of the information, she said.

“Most people think they are not influenced by ads, but they are exposed to 5,000 ads a day and spend two years of their lives watching ads,” Jean said.

New techniques include pregnant women allowing corporations to tattoo logos on their bellies for a fee and parents auctioning naming rights for their children to corporations.

“You can’t grow up in America and not be influenced by ads.  The influence is quick and subliminal.  Only eight percent of an ad message is received by the conscious mind,” she explained.

For example, people still smoke even though “cigarettes kill more Americans than alcohol, cocaine, heroin, fires, car crashes, homicides, suicides and AIDS combined,” she said.  “It is the most addictive drug and the hardest addiction to kick.”

Jean knows.  She started smoking at 13 to look glamorous and numb her depression after her mother died when she was nine.

She says information to free people from addiction is censored.

“Ads lie.  Young healthy people are shown in ads promoting cigarettes.  Men tie masculinity to smoking one brand that actually lowers testosterone and causes impotence.  It first was marketed to women, until Marlboro realized women would use a man’s product but men would not use a women’s product,” she said.  “Half of teens who smoke smoke that brand, which spends $50 billion on ads. 

“Cigarette advertisers say they just seek to influence adults to switch brands, but the purpose is to recruit new users—replacement smokers, because 2,000 smokers quit and 1,000 die each day, so they need 3,000 children to start smoking to replace those who quit or die,” Jean said.

Ads present an ideal image of beauty women strive and fail to achieve, because photos are digitally altered to erase scars, blemishes, pores and even weight.

“Bodies of celebrity women are horrifyingly small and thin, as if to say women should take up less space or even disappear,” Jean observed.

She attributes eating disorders to ads.  Language once related to sexual morality now relates to eating.  A girl or woman considers herself “bad” if she breaks her diet.

Jean said women’s magazines send a double message, promoting a diet beside a cover photo of a rich dessert.

“Because American media are global,” she said, “models in ads are young, thin, white, blonde and blue-eyed all over the world, making women everywhere feel bad about themselves.”

“The solution is to transform our cultural attitudes,” she said.

Jean decries sexualizing little girls and infantilizing adult women. The lines of porn are blurring with more and more graphic sexual messages.

Because of that, she believes age-appropriate sex education in schools needs to dispel dishonest information children learn about anatomy and relationships from TV programs and magazine images.

Her work challenges the way ads turn people into products, commodities or objects, not subjects of relationships.

She relates the widespread violence against women to advertising dehumanizing women and she sees an increase in all types of violence in TV programs, as well as in advertising.

Ads make men feel they are failures if they do not make enough money.  A rich, unattractive old man can have a beautiful woman, but there is contempt for older women, Jean said.

“Relationships are trivialized. Alcohol, cigarettes and food are sexualized. Sex images are used to sell,” she continued.

A sign of hope is the change in alcohol and tobacco advertising.  Cigarette ads are off TV and ads elsewhere must tell the dangers.

Thirty years ago, she felt alone in her work.  Now there are many books and workshops evaluating media and advertising.

Media advertising in corporate trade publications, however, continues to suggest that the purpose of media is to deliver people to advertisers, as if advertisers rent the eyeballs of TV viewers and media exist to round up an audience for advertisers.

“The alcohol industry does not sell  just bottles and glasses of alcohol but a fantasy of happiness, athleticism and sexuality.  It does not express the reality of sexually transmitted diseases, birth defects, rapes, accidents, deaths and impotence alcohol creates in men and women,” Jean said.  

“Advertising helps create addiction to alcohol and promotes a normalization of drinking that denies the realities of how damaging it is as a public health issue.”

In programs on media literacy, Jean accompanies verbal presentations with slides of ads demonstrating her points.

An ad agent advertised:  “If you have high ambitions, hire us.  He did!”  It’s accompanied by a photo of President George W. Bush.  It goes on:  “If we can create ads that persuade Hispanic people to vote Republican, we can persuade them to buy your products.”

“Advertising spin leads people to vote against their own best interests,” she said.

“Our environment cannot sustain the level of consumerism promoted,” she added.  “We need to be concerned about both our health and our freedom.

Her books sum up her message: Can’t Buy My Love:  How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel; Killing Us Softly; Slim Hopes and Calling the Shots.

For information, visit