Response to Jean Kilbourne: women in advertising By John Wright

Jean Kilbourne was last Weeks Body hero for her work on the subject of the image of women in advertising. While researching her I stumbled upon this Article by John Wright debunking some of her theories. John Wright is a radio broadcaster, filmmaker and polemical writer. His daily radio show can be heard locally on 1380am and on the internet. He works with Hemet Productions and Guardian Pictures producing films. This website brings together some audio, video and various articles written since 2003 relating to libertarianism, politics, culture, ethics, religion, music, general philosophy, science, technology and movies. I found it very interesting and so I thought I would bring it to you to get your opinion.





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This is my response to a lecture by Jean Kilbourne, made into a video documentary called ‘Killing Us Softly 3′ on the subject of women in advertising. She’s since produced another called ‘Generation M: Misogyny in Media and Culture’ and is a regular speaker at universities on these issues. The lecture she gave focuses on […]

This is my response to a lecture by Jean Kilbourne, made into a video documentary called ‘Killing Us Softly 3′ on the subject of women in advertising. She’s since produced another called ‘Generation M: Misogyny in Media and Culture’ and is a regular speaker at universities on these issues.

The lecture she gave focuses on advertising and the role of women. Everything she says is delivered warmly and with wit, and she generally comes across as very likable. However I found her message objectionable on many levels. Here are some of the main quotes from the lecture and my responses.

KILBOURNE: “The first thing the advertisers do is surround us with the image of ideal female beauty, so we all learn how important it is for a woman to be beautiful, and exactly what it takes.”

RESPONSE: How does Kilbourne know these are ideal women? Doesn’t she think that beauty is in the eye of the beholder? Or, as I suspect, does she know that the beauty of these women is in the eyes of a vast majority of beholders, and used by advertisers for that reason? After all, she describes them as possessing “ideal female beauty”. What advertisers are doing, of course, is using models they feel will be attractive to most viewers; that’s all.

In other words, the answer of which came first, the “ideal female beauty” in our minds or the advertising depicting it, is of course that we all have an innate idea of what attracts us to females in the first place, and advertisers merely exploit it. Researchers know precisely what this idea consists of in terms of hip to waist ratio, symmetry, skin complexion, walk, etc.. It turns out that these things are mostly objective rather than subjective standards of beauty, according to research, and the closer one’s partner approaches perfection, the more attractive we will usually find them.

It therefore is not the fault of advertisers that we have this idea, and I find it difficult to fault them for making use of it. (If my money were at risk promoting a product the sales of which I hope will make me a living, I wouldn’t want them using models depicting unattractive people, and I don’t think you would either. I however do accept that they don’t need to be perfect: it seems to me that advertisers would benefit from using more real women commercially.)

KILBOURNE: “Women’s bodies are still turned into objects, into things… [images show a perfume bottle shaped like a female torso].”

RESPONSE: Because we have this innate idea of what is beautiful about women, we create things which celebrate it. They are nothing more than a depiction of something beautiful, in the way other ads will use beautiful landscapes and others beautiful homes.

KILBOURNE: “Turning a human being into a thing is almost always the first step towards justifying violence towards that person.”

RESPONSE: What she’s saying is that women being objectified in general can lead to violence toward them. I’m sure that’s true. But that doesn’t make a torso-shaped perfume bottle wrong, even slightly, nor any of the other products or art pieces which celebrate the female form.

KILBOURNE: “Most often the focus is on breasts….”

RESPONSE: Because men find breasts attractive, and many men find a fuller bust attractive. If this were not the case, advertising would not have an interest in portraying it. That is why, before advertising ever began to feature the bust, art did the same thing.

KILBOURNE: “Then we’re told to wear uplifting bras … imagine if men were supposed to play this game … Wonder Jock, the strap for the bulge you’ve always wanted!”

RESPONSE: Two things to say here. First, “supposed” is the wrong word; women who wear uplifting bras want to be attractive by possessing what is widely considered beautiful (such as a fuller bust). Nobody is “supposed” to do anything; advertising exists to sell products which women are free to ignore. Second, men are, in fact, the target of the exact kinds of ads she implies they’re not! ‘Male enhancement’ pills claim to create the “bulge you’ve always wanted”. Deodorants, cologne, cars, watches and other status symbols are marketed to men for the improvement of their general attractiveness to partners. How is Kilbourne missing this crucial point? And it’s a point that extends to the rest of what she’s saying. Her paranoia about advertising to females is grossly ignorant of the myriad advertising which draws upon precisely the same opposite points to males, a fact which destroys her basic premise.

KILBOURNE: “We all learn very early on that our breasts are never okay the way they are.”

RESPONSE: Well then you all made the very grave mistake of assuming that advertising was trying to teach you. Advertising is a proposal, an argument: ‘You lack this; we can provide it.’ A sensible person will either ignore the proposal completely or consider it, reject its premise, accept its premise but not its conclusion, or find the product it’s selling and consider whether it would fulfill a need. Fundamentally, advertising exists to sell products and services, and what “we all” need to “learn” is to understand its role rather than imagine that everything it says is true. Frankly, if a woman thinks a suggestion that her breasts are not perfect the way they are is true because a company wrote it in a print ad, she has bigger problems with learning than with advertising.

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4 thoughts on “Response to Jean Kilbourne: women in advertising By John Wright”

  1. I always find the argument that “it’s your choice whether you buy into it” or “it’s your choice to buy it [product] or not” is wrong. We are barraged with advertising from a very young age and what we see/hear on a regular basis tends to be what we believe. Just like the taunts of a bully or the loving words of a parent, what we hear on a regular basis begins to shape our own self-esteem and what we think of ourselves.

    Even as an adult, it takes lots of strength, education and support to counteract the negative images/words we hear around us, both in advertising and from friends and family. That’s the whole point of Kilbourne’s project. I don’t think she’s saying, go use ugly people to sell your products, she’s saying use a variety of people, not just one color, one body type, etc. And don’t use unattainable body types as the main body type – this sets up unhealthy patterns of eating, exercising, etc. in all of us.

    I do agree she could focus more on men in order to show how bad advertising is for all of us, however, she is a woamn and is probably more motivated to focus on women. Let’s have some men take up their own issues and tell us how the advertising makes them feel.

  2. hello, I found this very helpful and would appreciate more posts like this one. Regarding this topic I totally agree, WOMEN ARE SENSITIVE!!!!!!!!!11

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