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Selling Addiction

Posted by tinako on May 14, 2012

Jean Kilbourne

This morning I listened to two Yale Rudd Center podcast interviews by Kelly Brownell of Jean Kilbourne, Ed.D., author, filmmaker, and speaker, “internationally recognized for her pioneering work on the image of women in advertising and her critical studies of alcohol and tobacco advertising.”

The first podcast was titled “The Selling of Alcohol and Tobacco.”

Ms. Kilbourne describes how after college she decided to be a model, which she described as soul-destroying.  She did it off and on for a while and then started thinking about the images and the whole idea of beauty, who decides.  Fascinated, she clipped out images, put them up on her fridge, and started seeing patterns.

She says that while ads always showed a beautiful ideal that was difficult for anyone to attain, now with Photoshop it is actually impossible.  These images are not real women, and yet we end up comparing ourselves to them, doing harm to women’s and girls’ self-esteem.  She talks about a slide she shows, an ad for the film “Pretty Woman” with Julia Roberts face and another woman’s body.  So Julia Roberts’ body wasn’t good enough to sell this movie.  Of course this isn’t necessary any more since the celebrity’s body can just be Photoshopped.  As impossible as these artificial altered images are to attain, women are made to feel that we could be this way if only we tried harder, bought these products, so if we don’t look this way, it’s our failure.

She said women’s bodies have been used for a long time to sell everything from chainsaws to filing cabinets, suggesting to men that if they buy this product they’ll get the woman, but she said the newer focus is on the sexualization of little girls.  She mentioned that a three-year-old on Toddlers in Tiaras was dressed exactly as the prostitute Julia Roberts plays in Pretty Woman, and encouraged to strut around the stage.  She’s seen padded bras for seven-year-olds in major department stores, and outrageous Halloween costumes.

A few years after she began thinking about images of women, she started thinking about ads for alcohol and tobacco.  She had been addicted to tobacco, had a lot of alcoholism in her family, and was spending a lot of time on college campuses and noticing how the alcohol industry was strongly targeting kids, so she started looking at their ads.

After six months of looking at their ads, she realized with horror that the alcohol industry understood alcoholism better than any other group in the country.  They understood the loneliness at the heart of all addictions, and they knew which psychological cues would trigger the urge to drink.  The addict feels like they’re in a relationship with the addictive substance; for example, cigarettes are your best friends, not your assassins.  She noticed that ads used to show a pretty woman with a beer, with the idea that a man drinks the beer and gets the woman, but now, the bottle is the lover, the drinking is the relationship.  She says this reflects a very sophisticated knowledge of what goes on in the heart of an addict.  Advertisers (in general, not just alcohol and tobacco) do an enormous amount of psychological research, down to putting electrodes on peoples’ brains.

She noticed how they were targeting kids, and then started looking at tobacco ads, because both industries absolutely depend on addicting children.  They can’t always do it blatantly, so often they turn to the internet, with web sites and gear.  They also push products heavily in other countries due to declining sales here.

She also saw how much influence the industries had on media coverage of these issues, due to advertising dollars.  You’re not going to get accurate information on alcohol being the most destructive drug in the nation if the magazine has alcohol ads in it.  You’re not going to get coverage of women’s image issues in a women’s magazine filled with these images.  It makes it difficult to get even basic health information out, much less get people to start thinking about changes for public health policies.   These industries also have enormous power in government due to the campaign financing necessary to be elected in the U.S., so it makes it difficult for our representatives to make decisions based on public health.

She says you can’t really expect companies making loads of money to change the way they operate, but that laws can help.  She notes a recent law in Israel saying that models must have a BMI of at least 18.5+ or a note from a doctor saying she is healthy.  Other countries have similar laws, starting with Madrid five years ago.  In the U.K. there’s a bill to label Photoshopped models, which they all are according to Ms. Kilbourne.

She ends this interview with her hope that things can change.  In the past, when you flew on an airplane you got cigarettes with your meal, and now they are completely banned there.

Ms. Kilbourne has created several films on these subjects.  Check them out at her web site.

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