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Home » Jean Kilbourne on The Dangerous Ways Ads See Women (Full Transcript)

Jean Kilbourne on The Dangerous Ways Ads See Women (Full Transcript)

Jean Kilbourne at TEDxLafayetteCollege

Jean Kilbourne, creator of Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women, discusses ‘The Dangerous Ways Ads See Women’ at TEDxLafayetteCollege conference. Below is the full transcript and summary of the TEDx Talk.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


I started collecting ads and talking about the image of women in advertising in the late 1960s. As far as I know, I was the first person to do this. I tore ads out of magazines, put them on my refrigerator, and gradually, I began to see a pattern in the ads, a kind of statement about what it meant to be a woman in the culture. I put together a slide presentation and began traveling around the country.

In 1979, I made my first film “Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women”, which I have remade three times since then.

These were some of the ads in my original collection long time ago. “Feminine odor is everyone’s problem.”

“If your hair isn’t beautiful, the rest hardly matters.”

“Honey, your anti-antiperspirant spray just doesn’t do it.”

“I’d probably never be married now, if I hadn’t lost 49 pounds.” Which, one woman told me, was the best advertisement for fat she had ever seen.

I am going to do a very abbreviated version of this talk, of course, today, but I want to begin with a question that I most often get asked, which is: “How did you get into this? What got you started?” Many factors in my life led to this interest. I became active in the second wave of the women’s movement right away in the late 1960s. I’d worked in media. I spent a year in London working for the British Broadcasting Corporation, and a year in Paris working for a French film company. This sounds much more glamorous than it was — I was a secretary. In those days, options for women were very limited. I was a secretary, I was a waitress, but I did have one other option that I rarely talk about. I was encouraged to enter beauty pageants and to model. This is artfully cropped to make it look as if I won. I was, in fact, the runner up. This was my first ad, and I think the car tells you something about how long ago this was, and this ran in a London newspaper.

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So modeling was one of the very few ways that a woman could make money in those days. It was very seductive, but for me it was also alienating, it was soul-destroying. There was a whole lot of sexual harassment that came with the territory, so I didn’t follow that path. But it left me with a lifelong interest in the whole idea of beauty and the power of the image.

Since that time, advertising has become much more widespread, powerful, and sophisticated than ever before. Babies at the age of 6 months can recognize corporate logos, and that’s the age at which marketers are now starting to target our children. At the same time, just about everyone feels personally exempt from the influence of advertising. So wherever I go, what I hear more than anything else is: “I don’t pay attention to ads, I just tune them out. They have no effect on me.” I hear this most often from people wearing Abercrombie T-shirts, but that is another story. The influence of advertising is quick, cumulative, and for the most part, subconscious. Ads sell more than products.

Now, in many ways, we have obviously come a long way. But from my perspective of over 40 years, the image of women in advertising is worse than ever. The pressure on women to be young, thin, beautiful is more intense than ever before. It’s always been impossible. Years ago, the supermodel Cindy Crawford said: “I wish I looked like Cindy Crawford.” She couldn’t of course, no one can look like this. But it’s really impossible today because of the magic of Photoshop, which can turn this woman into this woman and then try to make us believe that an anti-aging cream can do this.

Now, she is a beautiful woman, but older women are considered attractive in our culture only insofar as we stay looking impossibly young. We learn to read men’s and women’s faces very differently. Here we have Brad Pitt and former supermodel Linda Evangelista, about the same age, each one of them in an ad for Chanel, but he gets to look like a human being, and she is transformed into a cartoon.

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Now sometimes, every now and then, a celebrity resists. As you may know, just this week Lorde sent out a tweet with an unretouched photograph below the photoshopped version, and she tweeted: “Remember, flaws are OK.” Good for her, but this doesn’t happen very often.

Men are photoshopped too, but when men are photoshopped, they are made bigger. Andy Roddick laughed when he saw the bulked-up arms on this cover photo, and suggested they should be returned to the man they belong to.

The obsession with thinness is worse than ever because of Photoshop. Her head is bigger than her pelvis: this is an anatomical impossibility. The actual model for this ad was fired for being too fat, and they used Photoshop to create this freakish image. More recently, they used Photoshop to remove the dreaded thigh gap. Unfortunately, they also removed a very important part of her body. So the image is impossible for everyone, but particularly for women of color, who are considered beautiful only insofar as they resemble the white ideal: light skin, straight hair, Caucasian features, round eyes. Even Beyonce’s skin is lightened in ads.

The image isn’t real. It is artificial. It is constructed. It is impossible. But real women and girls measure ourselves against it every single day. Of course, it affects female self-esteem, and it affects how men feel about the very real women in their lives.

Women’s bodies are dismembered in ads, in ad after ad, for all kinds of products, and sometimes the body is not only dismembered, it’s insulted. As in this amazing ad that ran quite a few years ago in a lot of women and teen magazines. This is the whole ad, and I will read you the copy. “Your breasts may be too big, too saggy, too pert, too flat, too full, too far apart, too close together, too A cup, too lopsided, too jiggly, too pale, too padded, too pointy, too pendulous, or just two mosquito bites, but with Dep styling products, at least you can have your hair the way you want it.” It is ludicrous, but this ran in teen magazines. Teen magazines target 12-year-old girls. Here they are saying to 12-year-olds: “Your breasts will never be OK.”

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