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 of the TEDx Talk.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: The dangerous ways ads see women by Jean Kilbourne at TEDxLafayetteCollege


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.

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.

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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.

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.”

So our girls are getting the message today so young that they have to be incredibly thin, and beautiful, and hot, and sexy, and that they are going to fail. Because there is no way to measure up to this impossible ideal. The self-esteem of girls in America often plummets when they reach adolescence. Girls tend to feel fine about themselves when they are 8, 9, 10 years old. But they hit adolescence, and they often hit a wall, and certainly, part of this wall is this terrible emphasis on physical perfection.

Men’s bodies are very rarely dismembered in ads. More than they used to be, but still it tends to come as a shock. This ad ran about 20 years ago, in Vanity Fair, these are all from the national mainstream media, and it was one of the first examples of turning men into sex objects. But when this ad ran, about 20 years ago, the ad was so shocking that the ad itself got national media coverage. It’s a good thing it got some coverage, I suppose.

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Reporters called me up from all around the country and said: “They’re doing the same thing to men they’ve always done to women.” Well, not quite. They’d be doing the same thing to men they’ve always done to women if there were copy with this ad that went like this: “Your penis may be too small, too limp, too droopy, too lopsided, too narrow, too fat, too pale, too pointy, to blunt, or just two inches. But at least you can have a great pair of jeans.” It would never happen, nor should it; believe me, this is not the kind of equality I am fighting for. I don’t want them to do this to men anymore than to women.

But I think we can learn something from these two ads, one of which did happen, one of which never would. What they shows us very vividly is that men and women inhabit very different worlds. Men basically don’t live in a world in which their — Well, let me move on to another. There are stereotypes that harm men, of course, but they tend to be less personal, less related to the body. However, men are objectified more than they used to be, but there really aren’t consequences as a result of that. Men don’t live in a world in which they are likely to be raped, harassed, or beaten. At least, straight white men don’t live in such a world, whereas women and girls do.

When women are objectified, there is always the threat of sexual violence, there is always intimidation, there is always the possibility of danger. And women live in a world defined by that threat, whereas men, simply, do not. The body language of women and girls remains passive, vulnerable, submissive, and very different from the body language of men and boys. Probably the best way to illustrate that is to put a man in a traditionally feminine pose: it becomes obviously trivializing and absurd.

Grown women are often infantilized in ads, and increasingly, little girls are sexualized. I have been talking about this for decades. I wrote a book about it, and it is getting worse. This little girl is 9, and this is happening in a culture in which there is a widespread sexual abuse of children. Images like this don’t cause this problem, but they certainly normalize very dangerous attitudes towards children. Padded bras and thong panties are sold for 7-year-olds in major department stores. And the latest product? High heels for babies. Not to leave boys out, you can get t-shirts for your toddlers that say things like “Pimp Squad”. So boys are sexualized too, although in a very different way than girls.

Boys are encouraged to look at girls as sex objects, boys are encouraged to be sexually precocious, and boys are learned to be tough and invulnerable, basically starting in infancy. Basically, we allow our children to be sexualized, but we refuse to educate them about sex. The United States is the only developed nation in the world that doesn’t teach sex education in its schools. But our kids are getting sex education: they are getting massive doses of it, but they are getting it from advertising, the media, the popular culture. This is an ad for jeans, although something seems to be missing.

But each one of these ads for major, international products, major, mainstream media, very graphic, the problem isn’t sex, it’s the culture’s pornographic attitude towards sex, the trivialization of sex. And nowhere is sex more trivialized than in advertising where by definition it is used to sell everything. “Whatever you are giving him tonight, he will enjoy it more with rice.” I don’t think I’m particularly naive, but I haven’t figured out yet what the hell you do with rice. Maybe it’s wild rice. One woman shouted out she just hoped it wasn’t Minute Rice.

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So this is an old ad, of course, you could say, “Sex is always used to sell,” and that is true. But it is far more graphic and pornographic today than ever before. Just to illustrate that I am going to show you an old ad — this is an old ad using sex to sell food — and here is a current one, Burger King: “The super seven incher. It’ll blow your mind away.” For a mainstream product, as is this one.

Now, all of these images, I think, are actually profoundly anti-erotic, because in advertising and the popular culture, sexuality belongs only to the young and beautiful. If you are not young and perfect looking, you have no sexuality. And this makes most people feel less desirable. How sexy can a woman feel, if she hates her body? The Internet has given us all easy access to pornography these days, and as porn becomes more available and acceptable, the language and the images of porn become mainstream. Young celebrities emulate the porn stars, and these days, you can get your little girl a pole dancing doll. Girls are encouraged to present themselves as strippers and porn stars, to remove their pubic hair, and to be sexually available while expecting little or nothing in return. At the same time, they’re insulted: “Tastes great. Goes down easy.”

As they learn that their sexual behavior will be rewarded, they learn to sexualize themselves, to see themselves as objects. These images cause real harm to real girls and women. Girls exposed to sexualized images from a young age are more prone to eating disorders, depression, and low self-esteem. Inevitably, the objectification leads to violence, and that’s become much more extreme too.

Advertising often normalizes and trivializes battering, sexual assault, and even murder. The truth is most men are not violent. Overwhelmingly, most men are not violent. But many men are afraid to speak up, are afraid to support women, and are afraid to challenge other men. And I have great admiration for those men who do.

These ads don’t directly cause violence against women, but they normalize dangerous attitudes, and they create a climate in which women are often seen as things, as objects. And certainly, turning a human being into a thing is almost always the first step towards justifying violence against that person, and that step is constantly taken with women and girls. So the violence, the abuse, is partly the chilling but logical result of this kind of objectification.

So in all these ways, things have gotten worse, but in one big way, they have gotten much better: I am no longer alone. There are scores of films, hundreds of films, and books, and organizations like the Brave Girls Alliance which recently had a great event in Times Square. Media literacy is being taught in our schools, there is political action taking place around the world, and I have an extensive resource list on my website that lists lots of these things.

I am inspired by young activists like Julia Bloom who at the age of 14, launched a petition to Seventeen magazine asking them to limit their use of Photoshop, and she succeeded — here she is celebrating with some of her allies — and inspired other girls to do the same. This generation gives me hope.

But we have a long way to go. The changes will have to be profound and global, and they will depend upon an aware, active, educated public: people who think of themselves primarily as citizens rather than primarily as consumers. We are all affected by these images, we all have a profound stake in challenging them. We must create a better world for ourselves and our children. After all these years, I still have hope that we will.

Thank you so much.


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