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This article by Euna Kwon Brossman was prepared for the February 13, 2008 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved. For the complete calendar of business meetings and arts events in central New Jersey, go to www.princetoninfo.com/us1evts.html

Killing Me Softly: Advertising’s Poison Pen

When Jean Kilbourne graduated from Wellesley, the prestigious women’s college and Hillary Clinton’s alma mater, in 1964, career options for young women were still very limited, so she went to secretarial school. Finding the experience stifling and unfulfilling, Kilbourne decided to fly off to Europe in search of adventure, excitement, and fresh insights into the world. She found adventure, all right, working with the British Broadcasting Corporation in London and with a French film company in Paris. She did some modeling on the side and plunged wholeheartedly into the young and heady European social swirl, even dating Ringo Starr for a while.

While her life seemed glamorous – and indeed, there were many elements of glamor in it – she also found it very depressing. "In those days there was a lot of sexual harassment, although it was unspoken and not recognized," says Kilbourne. "I felt objectified, but I didn’t have a vocabulary to describe what I was feeling. I ended up feeling alienated and unhappy, and in a word, miserable."

Her experience left her with a lifelong interest in the image of beauty, how it is determined, and who wins and loses trying to live up to beauty’s often harsh measuring stick. Today she is an award-winning lecturer and filmmaker, and a renowned expert on images in advertising and its impact on attitudes and behavior. She studies how messages in the media manipulate children and adolescents, leading them to form poor self-images and ultimately, luring them into making narrow, unhealthy choices.

She is the creator of the renowned video series "Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women" and the author of "Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel." Her second book, due out this fall, is co-authored by Diane Levin and is titled "So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids."

Kilbourne will speak on Tuesday, February 19, at the Lawrenceville School on "Deadly Persuasion: The Advertising Industry’s Seduction of Our Youth," aimed at parents of children ages pre-K through 12th grade. The lecture is free and open to the public.

"Today, we are trying to raise our children in a toxic cultural environment. Our children are under assault, and there is no way to protect them completely," says Kilbourne. "It would be like saying the air is poisoned, so don’t let your kids breathe, or have them wear a gas mask. But parents have a lot of responsibility and can have a lot of influence on the way their children react to the messages that are bombarding them every day."

Bombardment, assault – both are very strong words but Kilbourne asserts that is nothing less than what the average American is exposed to incessantly – over 3,000 advertisements a day, and over three years’ worth of television ads over the course of a lifetime. Increasingly, she notes, this barrage of advertisement is being targeted to children and adolescents because of their growing buying power and sheer consumer appetite. The result, she says, is dangerous, especially to girls, because of the false promises of control and connection and the twisted and distorted ideals of beauty and happiness that are portrayed.

She warns that advertisers are targeting their messages to an audience that is getting younger and younger. How young? "Research shows that babies at the age of six months can recognize corporate logos. Corporations are also doing more and more research into ways to get people to want and to buy. These include such techniques as putting fragrances into products so that even infants in a pre-verbal stage can develop an attachment to those products. Companies are spending more money on psychological research than ever before, and children are being offered up to marketers in a way that is unprecedented in human history."

How can parents fight back against this onslaught? Kilbourne acknowledges it is difficult. And it’s something she knows personally, having raised a 20-year-old daughter, currently a junior at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, trying to insulate her as much as possible from the pernicious effects of advertising. "Feeling powerless is something I understand," she says. "I feel I’ve raised my child in a culture that’s hostile to everything I’ve wanted for her and values of all kinds. It’s exhausting."

She says there couldn’t be a kid who is better educated about the kind of issues that she’s talking about, but even for her, the pressures are difficult to resist. "Those pressures in this culture are so extreme, it’s hard not to go under. The images are powerful and project a huge double-standard, and girls, especially, are getting the message that they have to be beautiful and hot and sexy and still be able to think."

Kilbourne says that the pressures put on kids also put different kinds of pressures on their parents. "Parents who already feel overwhelmed are made to feel even worse that they are not doing enough. They need to understand that it’s not something they can do on their own. We are not going to save our children parent-by-parent, house-by-house. We need to think creatively and work together to find solutions that are more collective."

Kilbourne advocates a multi-pronged approach built on two cornerstones aimed at changing the cultural climate: comprehensive sex education in the schools and media literacy education starting very early in life. "By comprehensive sex education I’m not just talking about the mechanics of sex, anatomy, and body parts and such, but the idea of sending messages about healthy relationships and building good communication skills. Our kids get abstinence-only messages that are ineffective. They get the message that sex is dangerous, that it can hurt them, but they get very few positive messages about sex, sexuality, and healthy relationships. We need to open up the conversation."

Kilbourne says giving our kids a solid grounding in media literacy starting as early as kindergarten will give them tools to become critical viewers of the images that surround them. They can learn how media works and how to deconstruct the damaging messages so they are less easily manipulated. "Not just children but most people today don’t understand that the image of ideal beauty is constructed. It’s not real. It’s digitally altered to make it perfect, or airbrushed to whittle down that model’s thighs or lengthen her neck. That picture in that magazine has nothing to do with image of reality. With a media literacy course, children can learn to understand how impossible it is to achieve this image. They won’t feel so discouraged and there wouldn’t be the kinds of problems we have today with eating disorders and the like."

Kilbourne grew up in Hingham, a picturesque Massachusetts town just outside of Boston. Her father was a sales manager in a magazine publishing business. Her mother, a homemaker, died when Kilbourne was only nine years old, forcing her and her three brothers, two older and one younger, to grow up very quickly.

After graduating from Hingham High School and then receiving her B.A. in English from Wellesley College in 1964, she embarked upon the European adventure that turned out to be so life-altering. She ultimately went back to school to earn a doctorate in education from Boston University and turned her focus to understanding the images of beauty in media and ways women and children in particular, are exploited by them. She is a nationally recognized expert not just on media and advertising, but on gender issues and addictions as well.

One final question: what does Kilbourne think about the current Hollywood parade of troubled beauties and the messages they are sending with their antics? "Families should be talking about Britney and Lindsay at the dinner table," she says. "Children are getting a mixed message about these celebrities. They are self-destructing in front of our eyes, and yet they are the constant focus of attention; they are still at the center. We give them all this adulation and then once they slip in any way, there’s a huge amount of contempt. With Britney and the whole awards debacle where she was criticized for being overweight – what’s a 14-year-old going to think when she sees Britney savaged for being fat? She was celebrated, and then treated with such contempt. It’s so frightening. The message is that it’s important to be sexy, but slip, and the world is very unforgiving. This sets up our children, especially girls, in a way that’s unhealthy. This is the kind of stuff we have to fight back against because it is so harmful."

Deadly Persuasion: The Advertising Industry’s Seduction of Our Youth, Tuesday, February 19, 7:30 p.m. the Lawrenceville School, Kirby Arts Center. Lecture presented by Jean Kilbourne, author of "Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel." Free and open the public. Students and parents are welcome. 609-924-6700.

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