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.
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.
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
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
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."
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."
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…"
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."
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."
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
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
you read Jean Kilbourne’s book (the entire first chapter is posted at http://www.deadlypersuasion.com/chapter1.html),
the chances are good that you’ll deeply appreciate her work to challenge the ad
madness that afflicts us all.