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Women in Advertisements: A Public Health Issue

Keenan Hilton

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Armed with statistics and a powerful slide show, veteran of advertisement critique Jean Kilbourne came to campus with a reminder: We might not constantly think about advertisements, but they are constantly affecting us.

Photos by cade beck.

Jean Kilbourne spoke in Maxey last Tuesday. Photos by cade beck.

Kilbourne gave a lecture on Tuesday, April 16 at 7 p.m. in Maxey Auditorium. Her presentation incorporated findings from 40 years of research on the portrayal of women, tobacco and alcohol in advertisements.

“I was involved with the women’s movement,” said Kilbourne. “I had some experience as a model which was very soul-destroying … and it left me with a lot of interests––the whole idea of the image and of beauty and who wins and who loses. This was in the late ’60s, so I’ve been doing this a really long time. I was the first person to look at gender and advertising.”

In her lecture, Kilbourne recast the issue of advertisements as one of public health. She tied images of emaciated models to the emergence of myriad psychological disorders affecting young women. She argued that most of us are not aware of it, but we live in a toxic cultural environment.

“We end up looking for love in all the wrong places and feeling stressed and disappointed even if we’re not conscious of why,” said Kilbourne.

Kilbourne barraged her audience with objectifying images and rapid-fire commentary, which affected audience members on an emotional level.

“I think [Kilbourne is] very charismatic, and she brings a lot of specific examples that really reinforce her point in a way that’s emotionally poignant,” said senior Robyn Metcalfe, who attended the lecture.


During the question-and-answer session following the presentation, Kilbourne also described advertising as a product of a culture that prizes profit over happiness.

“The type of monopoly capitalism that we have is being called to question these days … we’re beginning to see some of the terrible consequences of the drive for profit being the be-all and end-all of life,” said Kilbourne.

According to Kilbourne, these corporations are responsible for damaging the psyches of many young people through the presentation of these images in advertisements. She sees movements away from advertisement as part of a broader struggle.

“She brought up Citizens United as an example,” said Metcalfe. “I’d never made that connection before.”

“A movement is emerging … It’ll take a critical mass to make a difference and whether that’ll happen I don’t know, but we’re seeing everything from … Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood to things like Occupy, you know, that are beginning to break through,” said Kilbourne.


Audience members were glad to see that she incorporated several important points into her overall argument.

“The sort of barrage of sexualization that she showed us really hammered home how pervasive the problem is … I think [by] integrating things like the fetishization of chastity, and commodification of childhood and anorexia, and other eating disorders and depression, and tying them in with the early adolescent self-esteem slump, she really painted a complete picture of the problem,” said junior Ben Harris.

They felt that actually seeing a presentation of these advertisements really helped them to grasp her arguments.
“The visuals were a big player in the effectiveness,” said audience member first-year Olivia Kinney. “They’re so surprising to see even though we see this stuff all the time.”
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Whitman news since 1896
Women in Advertisements: A Public Health Issue