Alarming Advertising Images and their Real-life Impact on Girls

Recently we had the opportunity to hear the legendary Dr. Jean Kilbourne speak and it was an eye opener.  Dr. Kilbourne has been researching how women are portrayed in the media and advertising since the 1970’s. Her documentary, Killing Us Softly and first book Can’t Buy My Love detail her troubling findings. Her powerful presentation, sponsored by HGNA (Helping Girls Navigate Adolescence) and delivered to a room full of parents and high school students, featured the shockingly obscene images that are portrayed in mainstream media.  These images are the topic detailed in her latest book,So Sexy So Soon, which confirms the damaging messages young, adolescent girls receive from today’s marketers.  To support Dr. Kilbourne’s recommendation that we all become educated consumers and advocates, we share our notes and thoughts from her presentation:

  • Frequently, advertising depicts women and girls as sex objects. This objectification of females is dangerous and can be the first step toward sexual violence. For example, the belief that women who flirt or dress provocatively and are sexually harassed or raped, somehow “asked for it” persists. Sexual violence is now commonplace in video games and pornography which young boys and men are frequently exposed to.
  • At a very young age, girls receive the message they must be beautiful, thin, and attractive (to men) to be successful.
  • At this same young age, girls receive the message that they should be sexy and “hot,” which is manifested in the provocative way young girls are portrayed in advertising for girls clothing, as well is in other portrayals including sexualized YouTube videos, television characters and sexy Halloween costumes.
  • Women typically appear in advertising with flawless skin, hair and body size, and are often scantily clad. Doctoring photos has long been a part of advertising but the advent of digital photos, photo shopping software, and powerful computers allows photos to be enhanced or completely overhauled. In some cases, an entire body is replaced with a model’s head. Voila!
  • This flawless image of perfection, however, is unrealistic and unattainable. Thus, although girls strive to be what they see, they will ultimately fail. Eating disorders, depression and addictions can result.
  • Girls, appear small (size 0!) and silent in ads, sending the message they should be quiet and express themselves with clothes and make-up.
  • Men appear in a very natural, rugged, fully clothed state in most ads. For men, wealth is the definition of success whereas for women, looks are what matters most.
  • According to Kilbourne, the media exists to sell audiences to advertisers. Companies spend hundreds of billions of dollars on advertising every year yet most people believe that advertising has no influence on them. Dr. Kilbourne, however, asserts that it’s exactly this belief that makes advertising so powerful. “The most effective kind of propaganda is that which is not recognizes as propaganda,” says Kilbourne in Can’t Buy My Love. Perhaps it’s because we are numb or not consciously aware of the subtle yet powerful underlying messages of most advertising. Further, viewing images repeatedly tends to normalize certain behavior which may account for some of today’s casual sex, unreported rapes and violent behavior.

One of Dr. Kilbourne’s most significant conclusions is that although advertisers may use shocking sexual overtones or innuendos, they are not selling sex; they are selling shopping, consumerism and sexualized products. Advertisers want us to not only objectify each other but to form relationships with the products we buy. Developing healthy relationships is a critical life skill and arguably one that is necessary for a meaningful life. Dr. Kilbourne suggests that advertising “corrupts relationships and then offers us products, both as solace and substitute for the intimate human connection we all long for and need.”

This message is dangerous for adolescent girls. Learning how to form healthy relationships with others, while critically important, can be challenging. This is especially true in this impersonal technological era of social media where texting and posting replaces talking. Girls that lack self esteem and feel empty and disconnected from parents and friends, a common condition of adolescence, may use products to fill up that space to falsely boost their self perception. Addiction to tobacco, alcohol, shopping and eating often result from feeling flawed or “less than” and trying to fill up the empty void.

So, what do we do?  Dr. Kilbourne strongly recommends that we all become aware of the power of advertising and view media with a critical eye.  Reading her book, Can’t Buy My Love, would be an excellent first step.  The next step is to become a smarter consumer. Our power as consumers is in our pocketbook.  Use your power.  If you don’t like what you see, don’t buy it, and use your voice to let the publications and products know that you don’t like what you see. Connect with groups who are raising a collective voice, such as theSPARK Movement and The Representation Project (from the filmmakers of Miss Representation).  Change comes with awareness and action.


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