News & Opinion » News

The psychological warfare against America

Dr. Jean Kilbourne fights the terrorists in our family rooms


Imagine President Bush appearing on TV to give the following address...

            "My fellow Americans, our nation is suffering at the hands of a particularly insidious group of domestic terrorists --- and by terrorists, I mean people who make our lives miserable by creating fear. This group spends billions of dollars and enlists the help of unscrupulous scientists to make us feel that we --- the American people, the strong, the brave, the self-reliant --- are weak and needy in myriad ways.

            "They make us feel ugly, old, and poor. They tell us we're failures in everything we do, that our jobs aren't good enough, we're not raising our kids right, we're lousy in bed.

            "We believe them. But worse than that, we give them our money by the truckload. They then take a significant amount of that money and use it to terrorize us again and again, thousands of times a year, and to assault the next generation, our children, with a barrage of the same psychological weaponry.

            "This psychological warfare must end...."

            There are several reasons why Bush will never give this speech. But the idea that what it says isn't true is not among them.

            For one thing, the group he'd be referring to is the advertising industry. For another, the rabid consumerism advertising feeds is widely considered a necessary component of a "healthy economy." And Bush himself, as is the case with most politicians, uses the same tactics, and employs the same people, to sell himself and his policies to us.

            Welcome to Dr. Jean Kilbourne's world.

            Kilbourne is among the most widely respected, tireless, and visible critics of the advertising industry in the world. She's been examining the societal and psychological effects of advertising, and speaking out on advertising's influence, particularly its devastating effect on young women and girls, for over three decades.

            In that time, she has lectured at thousands of colleges and universities in the United States and Canada, and spoken before countless private institutions and community and professional groups. She will deliver a lecture titled "The Naked Truth: Sex and Advertising" on Tuesday, May 6, at the Memorial Art Gallery.

            Documentary films based on her lectures include 1979's seminal Killing Us Softly: Advertising's Image of Women (which has since been remade and updated twice, as Still Killing Us Softly and Killing Us Softly III), Slim Hopes: Advertising and the Obsession with Thinness, and Pack of Lies: The Advertising of Tobacco.

            An expert on addictions, gender issues, and the media, Kilbourne has served as an advisor to two former Surgeons General --- C. Everett Koop and Antonia Novello ---- and was appointed to serve on the National Advisory Council on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in 1993.

            Kilbourne has been a Visiting Scholar at Wellesley College in Massachusetts since 1984. Her first book is 2000's Can't Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel.

City: You've been at this for three decades now. What new things are you learning?

            Kilbourne: What's really new isn't so much what I've been saying, because what I'm saying has continued to be true and to get worse --- things like the tyranny of the ideal image, and the obsession with thinness, and the exploitation of little girls. If anything, it just continues to get worse and more sophisticated.

            But what is new is that there's much more resistance to it than there was when I started. It's more organized. There are far more groups.

            City:What do you say to people who look at your research and say, "Well, what else do you expect from Madison Avenue? This is their job, to get people to buy products. Would you expect anything more principled from these ad people?"

            Kilbourne: Well, probably not. Although there are, certainly, people within the advertising industry who are very concerned about these issues, and there are agencies that don't do this sort of thing. There are agencies that refuse to take tobacco accounts, for example, and agencies that are much more sensitive than others to the image of women. I'm not demonizing all advertisers.

            But, in general, the prevailing ethic in the country certainly is --- and more so than ever, these days --- that whatever makes a buck is good. And if that means that you need to target children and sell them junk food, you do it. Or if you need to sell cigarettes to 12-year-old girls by making them feel afraid about gaining weight, you do it.

            From the people who buy that --- that profit is all that matters --- I expect nothing different from what we're getting. I don't expect change to come from the advertisers. Change is gonna come from citizens demanding change and being educated enough to respond differently to the images, so that advertisers will be forced to change, because the old images won't work.

            City: Why are ads that play off human needs, fears, and weaknesses more successful than those that empower people or make them feel good about themselves?

            Kilbourne: I guess because those needs and fears run so deep. Advertising is mostly aimed at our unconscious. An editor-in-chief of Ad Age said a while ago that only eight percent of an ad's message is perceived by the conscious mind, and the rest is worked and reworked unconsciously. And, of course, Freud taught us that sex and death are the two big unconscious factors. So I think that they can prey on those very deep, unconscious motivations and elicit a deeper response than a more superficial image will.

            But, of course, in order to do that, they need to make us feel not-OK the way we are. The message has to be that there's something missing in us, in our lives, about our bodies --- something wrong that needs to be fixed --- in order for the ad to work.

            Therefore, one byproduct of all this advertising is we're barraged by the message that we're lacking in some way. For women, our bodies aren't good enough, we're not thin enough. For men, you're not rich and successful enough. For couples, you're not having exciting enough sex. Whatever it is, the message is one of lack and inferiority in some way that can then only be remedied by buying the product.

            So, in addition to selling the product, they're selling this deep-rooted discontent with ourselves, with our marriages, with our children, with everything.

            City: And we're buying it.

            Kilbourne: And it's hard not to buy it. It really is. Even if you're savvy, and most people are to some extent. It's hard not to buy it, because these messages are very powerfully designed. Billions of dollars are spent on psychological research and little focus groups. Psychologists get in on the act. So, it's not like we're stupid. It's just that we're really being barraged by the most sophisticated propaganda campaign in the history of the world.

City: If the gender stereotypes and messages in commercials are bad, what about the messages in the shows (sitcoms, dramas) themselves?

            Kilbourne: TV programs exist for one reason, and that is to draw audiences to advertisers, to sell audiences to advertisers, to make sure that people are there for the commercials. So they constantly reinforce the values of the commercials.

            An obvious example is Friends, where these extraordinarily thin women star in Friends, and it's brought to you by Diet Pepsi. It's not a coincidence. Friends is a good show in many ways. But it exists for one purpose only, and that is to get people there for the Diet Pepsi ads, and get people there who are going to be in the mood for those ads, too --- who are gonna think, "Boy, if I drink this, maybe I'll be as skinny as Jennifer Aniston."

            City:What affect does advertising have on our political consciousness?

            Kilbourne: I think it's totally destroying our democracy, to tell you the truth. For starters, just the actual way in which candidates are packaged and sold is a grave threat to our democracy, for two reasons:

            One is because it really does often lead people to vote against their own best interests. People end up feeling that they're informed about where candidates really stand on issues, but they're not. Then they end up voting against their own best interests, because they've been manipulated by these very slick ads.

            These ads are done exactly the way ads for cigarettes and beer and cars are done. They're done with focus groups. They're done with psychological research. They're done to stir up emotion. And they're done to affect us unconsciously. So, candidates can wrap themselves in the flag and everybody thinks one thing, whereas, in fact, the candidate may believe something totally different.

            The other thing that is a huge factor here is that it's because of advertising that politicians have to raise such huge amounts of money. They have to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in order to run for office, in order to afford advertising. That's what it's about, the ads and the broadcast time.

            Because of that, they have to get the money from big business --- there's no other place to get it. And by the time they have enough money to run for office, they're already corrupted, they owe so many favors to so many companies that there's no way that they're going to be able to vote their conscience. They're gonna have to pay back.

            City:They also create apathy.

            Kilbourne: A profound sense of apathy. That's why so few people vote, why people feel that nothing really makes any difference, and why people make the tragic mistake of thinking that all candidates are the same. They are not all the same. But the sameness of the commercials makes us believe that they're somehow all the same.

Dr. Jean Kilbourne gives a lecture titled ""The Naked Truth: Sex and Advertising" on Tuesday, May 6, at the Memorial Art Gallery, 500 University Avenue, at 6 p.m. (reception at 5 p.m.). Tix: $15 (students free). 546-2771 x330 or