Advertising, Beauty & Body Image | Omega

Pioneering media literacy activist Jean Kilbourne talks about the saturation of advertising in our media-driven culture—and the effects of these images on our society, young girls' self-esteem, and how we define "beauty". 

Omega: Today the average American sees 3,000 advertisements a day. What’s the impact of that and how do we respond?

Jean: Advertising is hugely more important than most realize—it’s the engine that drives mass media. Television, magazines, websites, and newspapers are all rounding up audiences to be sold to advertisers. That’s their business model. That’s the point.

The problem with ads goes beyond images of beauty to the whole consumer lifestyle. Advertising doesn’t create desires, but it does take very human desires—to be loved, to connect, and to have meaningful work—and yokes those human desires to products. The problem is that products are not going to meet those needs.

No matter how many things you have, things are not going to love you back. We look for love in all the wrong places, not getting our needs met, and not even looking in the direction where those needs would be met—in meaningful relationships and work—those things that make human beings happy and fulfilled.

My first book was about how products are sexualized. We’re encouraged to be in a relationship with a product and be loyal to a brand. One car ad says, “You can love it without getting your heart broken,” and you can, but it’s not actually a satisfying relationship. On some level, we know that, but on the other hand it’s hard to grow up in this culture and not feel that things can meet those deepest human needs in some way.

Our only hope is a critical mass of people standing up to corporations and government and demanding accountability. That won’t happen if people feel powerless and a lot of advertising is about making people feel like their primary power is the power to buy something.

I’ve seen social media used in an empowering, pro-social way by holding brands accountable or being anti-consumerism but it’s also used to sell products, camouflage advertising, and make products look cool, so it goes both ways.

Omega: You say research shows that we recognize corporate logos at six months old, inspiring some countries to ban advertising aimed at children. As national politics increasingly merge with multinational brands, how do we change society by seeing ourselves as citizens rather than consumers?

Jean: We’re at a crossroads—perilously close to the point where we won’t be able to do anything. Where corporations do rule the world and where citizen activism in itself becomes sponsored—the Pepsi March for Change—and won’t have meaning.

People have to wake up to what’s going on and care. Unfortunately, a lot of people have been lulled into complacency as consumers. We need a tipping point. 

One place to start would be to overturn the Citizen’s United decision. A groundswell of people recognize this was one of the most disastrous decisions the Supreme Court has made—although it was not a mistake—they’re very pro-business. Another is to vote. Fewer and fewer people are able to vote, because of restrictive laws.  Sadly, many more just don’t bother.

Omega: A recent study by the American Psychological Association found that girls heavily exposed to sexualized images are more likely to suffer from “eating disorders, depression, and low self-esteem.” Can you give examples or methods of healthy advertising?

Jean: It’s true. Today, even very little girls are exposed to overt sexualized images. It’s most media—the way celebrities dress, music videos, etc. You see its effect on how young girls dress and wear makeup now. That’s just the beginning.

No ad is perfect, but some try. The Dove “Real Beauty” campaign is 10 years old and has done some good in encouraging self-esteem and media literacy. The Always “Like a Girl” ad allegedly seeks to empower girls. What it has to do with a maxi pad, who knows? But, in a way, I don’t care. 

People criticize these commercials because they’re still selling a product and they’re not really sincere, but I care about the image—running the Like a Girl ad during the Super Bowl was a good thing. It was seen by a lot of people who otherwise would not think about these things. Some ads do exploit feminism and that’s not okay, as in Virginia Slims “You’ve come a long way baby,” selling a lethal product. But if you’re selling a maxi pad, so what?

These ads are the closest we are to counter-advertising like the Department of Health ads against the tobacco industry, which were hugely effective—states that ran counter ads had much lower rates of smoking. We need counter-ads against sexism and violence against women, but the Department of Health isn’t funded for that, nor sees it as necessary.

Also, the percentage of women on corporate boards or in congress is pathetically low, worse than just about any other developed nation in the world. Of CEOs of the Fortune 500, there are a handful of women. Until recently, 3 percent of creative directors in advertising were female, it’s now gone up to 11 percent, but that’s still low.

It has to be a critical mass of women because if there’s just a few they’re much more likely to not want to stand out because it’s a risk. It would make a huge difference if more women had positions of power in advertising. It would be a different game. 

Omega: The popularity and accessibility of pills, plastic surgery, and the science of genetic mutation grows across populations. What should we aspire to in our notions of beauty?

Jean: I’ve been saying from the beginning—there are no winners in this game, because even if a woman is “beautiful,” it isn’t going to last very long. As she ages her value diminishes, which is the opposite of what it should be. A woman’s value should grow as she gets older, as it does for a man, especially if he is financially successful.

In media, an older model or celebrity’s face is erased so you don’t see lines. With men you do—he looks like a human being and she looks like a cartoon. If it’s not Photoshop, it’s cosmetic procedures, which used to be something only celebrities or the wealthy had. But now it’s more possible for any woman to have procedures like breast implants and Cosmopolitan runs articles about cosmetic surgery and Botox.

This might seem more democratic—all women can aspire to this standard of beauty—but they’re aspiring to a narrow, clichéd, and limiting definition. And even with cosmetic surgery, there comes a point at which it either looks so extreme that you’re ridiculed or it simply doesn’t work anymore.

Omega: Television stars like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner have opened up a variety of national conversations about transgender identity. What are your thoughts about these conversations?

Jean: The discussion has been very important—people are beginning to get a sense of what transgender is about—that it’s not sexual preference. There’s something necessary about seeing underrepresented people on television that makes them relatable.

I would love for the transgender kid in high school to be given an award for courage. Kids are beaten up every day because they’re “effeminate” or not conforming to their gender. Caitlyn Jenner is extraordinarily privileged and wealthy, which is not to say that it isn’t hard to do this. It’s hard for everybody to do it. So let’s celebrate the courage it takes to come out, as it does for any gay or bisexual or transgender person, and also give awards to the people who don’t have those privileges.

It was interesting to me that the cover of Vanity Fair was a cliché of what it means to be a woman, furthering the myth and the stereotype about what’s beautiful for a woman. It’s certainly Caitlyn Jenner's choice and freedom. Maybe she’s wanted her whole life to be able to look like that. But it is the narrowest, stereotypical standard of beauty and what I’ve been fighting against for so long.

My concern is that it’s saying to transgender women, you can look like this, too, if you just use the right products or can have the right cosmetic surgeon. And it further devalues older women—she’s 65 and looks 35—as one more celebrity who looks impossibly young when we never see an older-looking woman who is considered beautiful or attractive.

The show Transparent is very realistic with its main character—she isn’t going to pass as a woman, but it doesn’t matter. She feels better about herself. It’s such a very tiny percentage of people who are considered beautiful by the culture, and even then only for a short time until aging catches up. So this narrow idea of feminine beauty is dangerous for anybody—male, female, and transgender—to buy into. 

© 2016 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies

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